Crowdsourcing solutions to Lebanon’s crisis

Two heads are better than one

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To overcome the current crisis, the new Lebanese government will need to develop innovative policies—quickly. Currently, authorities are following a conventional model by seeking ideas from a bureaucracy of civil servants and consulting agencies. Perhaps a more effective way for the government to find solutions is to engage citizens directly via a digital crowdsourcing campaign.

Crowdsourcing is obtaining information and ideas by asking for input from a large group of people, often sourced via the internet. It is based around the theory of collective intelligence, where Swiss researchers estimate that a million individuals working independently have a 97.7 percent likelihood for solving any problem.

The most basic form of crowdsourcing is to run an open online contest for solutions to specific challenges. The relevant ministry drafts and posts a challenge for citizens to respond to with ideas. The proposals can either be voted upon online by peers or judged by a selected committee of specialists. A successful example of this model is challenge.gov, a platform developed by the United States for members of the public to compete to help the government solve public problems. Since 2010, the site has run nearly 1,000 challenges to find solutions for more than 100 federal agencies.

This competitive crowdsourcing process is simple, cheap, and effective—but it limits innovation. By competing, citizens are not incentivized to work together and build upon each other’s proposals.

A more complex, collaborative model could yield better results. In 2013, the Finnish environment ministry invited 700 citizens to participate online to reform the off-road traffic law. Using a blend of online engagement platforms, citizens shared around 500 ideas, 4,000 comments, and 19,000 votes throughout the process. A Finnish Parliament review of the exercise found it beneficial to democracy by 1) providing access to a large pool of knowledge for policy-makers, 2) opening an avenue for civic participation with the potential to increase citizen engagement, and 3) providing a point of contact between citizens and lawmakers that was likely to increase trust—if done well. The paper did caution, however, that crowdsourcing was not an end within itself and would need to be directed toward a specific goal or policy target.

More complex and collaborative crowdsourcing models are more difficult to run and more susceptible to design flaws. How decisions are made, who gets to participate, and how participants contribute could improve or hamper the process. Online crowdsourcing could also marginalize those who are not digitally literate or have no access to the internet.

As a result, a Lebanese model should follow a merged online and offline concept. A platform where citizens can submit ideas should be developed, with the ideas voted upon publicly and filtered. In parallel, specialists across the Lebanese community, both locally and globally, could be invited to form large, digitally-enabled panels to develop expert proposals informed by citizens’ proposals. Ultimately, these proposals would be submitted to government actors as prospective policy solutions to be debated internally, and implemented.

A 2017 paper, published in the bimonthly journal the Public Administration Review, found that “properly designed crowdsourcing platforms can empower citizens, create legitimacy for the government with the people, and enhance the effectiveness of public services and goods.” Applying crowdsourcing solutions for Lebanon could yield multiple benefits. First, Lebanon has exceptional talent. Whether locally or abroad, members of the Lebanese community are innovating and pushing the boundaries of science, technology, and the arts worldwide. The caliber of solutions they submit could be much better than those proposed by a government committee or consulting firm. A digital, open approach would bring the estimated 8 million-strong Lebanese diaspora directly into the governance process, allowing the crowdsourcing campaign to leverage expats’ knowledge about successful solutions implemented abroad.

Second, crowdsourcing innovation could increase faith in the new government from a skeptical public. By providing citizens with an open, transparent space to discuss problems and contribute solutions, the Lebanese have an alternative means to express themselves beyond protesting. Such a move would shift the conversation from what is wrong and who is to blame to how to solve our problems.

Finally, a progressive digital crowdsourcing campaign would send a positive signal to the international community. It would position Lebanon as a pioneer in digital governance, willing to try innovative new ways to overcome its crisis, as well as highlight a real commitment toward democratic inclusion in regulatory reform.

Basil Mahfouz

Basil Mahfouz is an environmental policy researcher and entrepreneur. He’s the co-founder of SynSapien, an open platform where people invent technology together.

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