In 2012 I suggested the Education Committee crowdsource Twitter questions to put to the then Education Minister Michael Gove. The #AskGove hashtag really took off BBC: MPs ‘overwhelmed’ by Twitter questions for Gove and I’ve worked on a number of similar crowdsourcing exercises since including: #AskPickles, #AskMaude, #AskCycleMinisters and #AskEnergyFirms.
Holding the powerful to account
A key role of select committees is to hold ministers, and other powerful figures, to account on behalf of the public. One of the ways they do this is through public evidence sessions in Parliament where these individuals are questioned directly by MPs. Getting the MPs to ask crowdsourced Twitter questions can add a new and powerful dimension to proceedings. This item on #AskEnergyFirms from PR Week: Energy select committee invites public to join ‘big six’ grilling via Twitter highlighted how potentially potent it could be to combine select committees and the public via Twitter:
If they (clients) find themselves in the middle of a Twitter storm at the moment, it can be damaging in one sense but they have the option of not replying to it. Once you feed in select committees they don’t have the option of not replying, so they have to be even more agile than they thought.
The wisdom of crowds
I’m a big believer in crowdsourcing and I’d recommend ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ by James Surowiecki if you want to learn more. There are basically four key elements required to form a ‘wise’ crowd:
- Diversity of opinion – each person should have private information even if just eccentric interpretation of the known facts
- Independence – people’s opinions aren’t determined by those around them
- Decentralisation – people are able to specialise and draw on local knowledge
- Aggregation – some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision
Our exercises in crowdsourcing met all these criteria (with the Committee doing the aggregation bit) and consequently the quality of questions has been consistently high. How’s this for a question to the Education Minister:
Motivating your crowd
Alongside these key elements if you want your crowdsourcing exercise to be successful those taking part also need to care about what you’re trying to do collectively. The #AskEnergyFirms hashtag got as much promotion as I could have hoped for on Twitter but we ultimately only received a few hundred questions. In contrast the #AskGove hashtag had about the same amount of publicity but we received over five thousand questions. I think the key difference was the extent to which the audience cared.
What people care about
People are often passionate about their jobs, or at least what they do for a living has a significant impact on their lives. The decisions made by ministers, or other powerful figures, about their jobs is therefore something they care deeply about and they are highly motivated to question those with that power. Consequently the teaching community were the most active group sharing and tweeting about #AskGove. In contrast people don’t care as much about who supplies their gas and electricity, the impact and personal connection is weaker. They might be dissatisfied with the prices they pay or the services they get but generally they feel less of a stake in holding those responsible to account.
It’s easy to dismiss crowdsourcing questions on Twitter as a gimmick but aside from putting some powerful people on the spot these exercises can have some tangible results. They can potentially push the Government to look more closely at a policy area such as this example from #AskMaude Using social media to influence policy – a personal case study. Better still they can change the law. Councils used to be required to send paper copies of agendas to all councillors but thanks to an #AskPickles question this is no longer the case Pickles confirms plan to change electronic agenda rule.
What next for crowdsourcing and Parliament
Rather than ushering in some era of direct democracy I think channeling public questions through committees using social media (not just Twitter) is a great way to strengthen representative democracy. It’s been a great way of showing the public that committees are there to ask the Government (and the powerful) difficult questions on their behalf and I hope the MPs involved have seen that the public can ask some really searching, relevant and difficult questions. There’s a nice quote about democracy that it’s a form of society ‘devised and maintained by those who know they don’t know everything’ and I think MPs crowdsourcing questions is a great example of this kind of democracy in action.