Delivering public service for the future: Harnessing the Crowd

Governments around the world are being squeezed.  In the aftermath of the deepest financial crisis since the 1930s, public leaders are increasingly being asked to do more with less—enhancing citizen outcomes while continuing to find cost efficiencies. However, such is the gap between supply and demand that traditional approaches to salami-slicing will not prove sufficient. Creating sustainable services, meeting increasing social demands and supporting internationally competitive economies in a multi-polar world all require a more fundamental rethink about how and what governments deliver.

The starting point for policymakers around the world should be to look outwards, shifting the tone from government-as-delivering-service, to a new culture of public entrepreneurship. Governments need to leverage the potential of innovation and collaborative working. They need to turn themselves inside out, and start tapping new sources.

The potential of the crowd has already begun to transform the way companies do business, the way new ideas come to fruition, and the way social change is catalyzed.  It is increasingly to the crowd that professionals and experts turn as they seek to address ‘wicked’ problems or break ground in new markets.  Technology is the enabler.  But the driver is a radical shift in ethos, blurring the boundaries between expert, professional, amateur and customer.  As Jeff Howe, inventor of the phrase “crowdsourcing” argued in 2006,

“Hobbyists, part-timers and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies and industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap into the latent talent of the crowd….”[1]

The world of social innovation has also been quick to grasp this trend.  Path-breaking start-ups like Kenya’s Usahidi used open-source software to crowdmap reports of post-election violence in the country in 2008.  Their platform is now used by the World Bank and the United Nations, among others. 

Extending the Wisdom of the Crowd

Governments’ relationship with the crowd, however, has understandably been trickier. Expectations must be managed; needs balanced against the ability to deliver. Indeed, most Western systems of public services are funded, designed and delivered in a highly centralized way. But today’s context requires governments to shift from a standardized model that manages the crowd, to a more personalized approach that harnesses its potential. As part of this, the notion of the crowd must be reconceived to include not only citizens, but also the private and social sectors of the economy—as well as governments themselves.

After all, with huge and diverse endowments of people, buildings, land and technology, governments are effectively crowds in their own right. How well are best practices shared and spread within government departments? How well are government departments linked together? While finally we are seeing citizen-centric web services, reflecting user needs rather than the organogram of departments of state, there is still great scope for the internal equivalent. For example, cross-departmental professional groups that propagate effective working practices. Large multinationals have been doing this for years, now aided considerably by collaboration technologies such as Yammer. How many national governments truly have a matrixed organization?

Beyond better linkages between departments, there are at least three other ways in which governments can harness the wisdom of the crowd close to home.

  1. Pooling resources
    Sharing back office capabilities is already helping governments improve outcomes at reduced costs. In New York state, for example, it is estimated that shared services have the potential to save nearly $800 million. But while services such as IT and human resources are often those areas most likely to be consolidated, other areas such as vehicle fleets and libraries, for example, could all seek to reduce costs while potentially pooling expertise and improving the overall user experience.
  2. Encouraging A2A (agency-to-agency) services
    If one council runs a particularly effective council-tax collection office, for example, why shouldn’t it offer its services to other councils? For example, in the United Kingdom, the North-East Ambulance Service bid successfully for the contract to run a new non-emergency helpline in parts of England. While opening up internal markets can be problematic, nevertheless if surplus skillsets and capabilities can be matched with pockets of demand in this way the potential for shared expertise and higher standards is significant.
  3. Exploring G2G (government-to-government) services. 
    Need there really be a specifically French way of processing a driving license application? While it may at first appear improbable, why couldn’t some (non-sensitive) functions of government be carried out by an agency in another part of the world? With increasingly common international standards and advances in technology, this may not seem so unlikely after all. What will be key is transparency and the retention of core knowledge in the organization buying services.


The crowd outside

Farsighted governments can also take steps to harness the crowd outside. Austerity, technology and a new ethos of innovation and ‘co-creation’ in public services is slowly driving a swath of new collaborative practice.  Many policymakers are beginning to look to society to help address social problems they know government cannot solve alone.  The funding gap at the front-line is increasingly being filled by innovative financing mechanisms that blend private investment with public goals and a social return.  Social media and open data are already forcing inward-looking bureaucracies to share decision making and open up service delivery.  Civil society, business and citizens themselves have new roles to play in the public services.  What potential could be realized?

Accenture has argued that delivering sustainable public services in future will be about making substantial structural shifts towards a delivery model that is more personalized, insight-driven, entrepreneurial and productive.  This requires a new generation of public services, a new set of operating models and the citizen at the centre.  Policymakers and public managers may consider the potential of the crowd in three key areas.

  1. The delivery base
    We are seeing increasingly plural and diverse public service markets emerge, with the public sector, civil society and the business community all helping to create hybrid new delivery models that can maximize social value and generate efficiencies for the taxpayer.  Social enterprises such as Seniors Helping Seniors in the United States and community networks such as Australia’s Family by Family are leading the way in partnership with local authorities, developing innovative and cost-effective approaches to social care for people of all ages, learning from and involving service recipients.  A renewed focus on productivity – improving and scaling outcomes at lower cost will only increase the thirst for this kind of social market innovation.
  2. The funding base
    Addressing complex issues such as unemployment and reoffending is an area in which government is already looking to the crowd – both in terms of multi-sector participation in service delivery chains and in the funding mechanisms that enable them.  Social finance (such as the social impact bond, currently being trialed at Peterborough prison in the United Kingdom as part of a payment-by-results approach to reducing reoffending) seeks to mobilize private investment to achieve social goals, with a return to investors via savings in the public purse.[2]   This is at the apex of a movement that includes crowdfunding, investment competitions and games, and an emerging new generation of public-private partnerships.
  3. The evidence base
    New technologies are allowing the voices of citizens to be heard as never before.  Yet government is only just joining the conversation.  As former Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom has asked: “why is it that people are more engaged than ever with each other…but less engaged with their government?”[3]  The answer is partly about the terms of engagement.  Policy has historically been driven from the top down.  Initiatives like India’s Project Aadhar offer a chance to flip this around, enabling a new generation of inclusive and personalized public services built around the digital footprint of individual citizens.  It builds on an emerging and diverse canon of digital innovation – from crime mapping in Chicago to Tyze online social care networks in Canada – that are using the power of digital to crowdsource, connect and re-shape the service model.


What Next?

Realizing the potential of the crowd calls for a renewed understanding of the operating context for government and the changed ecosystem in which public leaders now find themselves.  As we seek to marry fiscal constraints and growing social demands, it is vital that we understand how government can better mobilize the energy of citizens and unlock the dynamism of the social market as innovative ways of addressing some of our most intricate social problems.

Many public leaders around the world are already acting on this.  But what can accelerate the diversification of delivery models, funding options and evidence-based policy making? Here too the answer may lie with the crowd: thinking “bottom up” rather than “top down” as the starting point—in at least three areas.  First, open up government through bold approaches to open data and open policymaking.  Second, get better at working with the grain of citizens’ lives, learning from the cutting edge neuroscience and behavioral economics that is already changing policy at the highest level.  Third, trust the ability of citizens to make decisions and help re-shape the services they receive through co-production and better engagement at the front line. 

As Mayor of Oklahoma Mick Cornett demonstrated in “taking the city on a diet”, new technology can enable a different kind of relationship with society and the market – cementing a rebalancing from government as inevitably top-down – serving the crowd – to a new model in which the crowd, in all its forms, helps to design and deliver public services, co-creating social and economic value as it does so.  Navigating this shift could sustainably change the shape and role of governments, enabling them to meet rising demand and constrained resources with new creativity and an expanded resource base.  The public service of the future needs the wisdom of the crowd at its heart.

[2] Note – the idea of social impact bonds and social finance is being picked up in the United States, catalysed by Harvard University’s Social Impact Bond Lab – developed partly in response to the UK pilot scheme.  See

[3] Newsom, G. & Dickey, L. (2013) Citizenville: how to take the town square digital and reinvent government London, Penguin Press

About the Author

Tim Cooper is a senior research manager with the Accenture Institute for High Performance.

About the Author

Matthew Robinson is managing director of policy research at the Institute.

About the Author

Henry Kippin is director at Collaborate CIC, a research and policy hub promoting better relationships between the public, private and social sectors.

About the Author

Matthew Robinson is managing director of policy research at the Institute.

About the Author

Henry Kippin is director at Collaborate CIC, a research and policy hub promoting better relationships between the public, private and social sectors.