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August 31, 2010

Is there any wisdom out there?

What do you do when you have a really big problem to solve? An increasing body of evidence suggests that the answer may lie in tapping into ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ aka crowdsourcing. The Government must be hoping that some pearls of wisdom emerge from the 100,000+ responses it received when asking the general public what it should do to resolve the country’s financial crisis

WELCOME to a Britain at some indeterminate point in the future – a Britain shaped exclusively by the public will and not by Prime Ministers or MPs. Scotland, for a start, has been cut loose, thanks to a decisive English majority in a UK-wide referendum.

Any immigrant who commits even a minor offence is deported without trial. Criminals can be executed if they face their third custodial sentence. A watered-down version of China’s one-child policy means the state provides Child Benefit only for a family’s first child. Bounty hunters are busy tracking down benefit cheats. Local prison inmates are powering the jail, or contributing to the National Grid, by using exercise bikes and treadmills that drive electricity generators.

Cannabis and prostitution have been legalised. The Afghan war was ended at a stroke by the UK Government purchasing the country’s entire opium crop, thus denying the Taliban vital revenue – and putting Afghan farmers on our side. Trident has been scrapped. Multi- millionaire footballers, long the figures of public envy, now see their bloated salaries taxed at 95% over pound(s)240,000. Junk food carries VAT at 50%. Army recruitment has been suspended. And the pound(s)12 million that would have been spent on the Pope’s visit in September 2010 was instead directed at medical research and healthcare, both of which have for hundreds of years been “more effective than prayer”.

Is this the rosy dawn of a blissful utopia that can’t come quickly enough? Or a stagnant post-apocalyptic vision that does not bear thinking about?

What it is, in reality, is a summary of some of the 45,000 suggestions volunteered by members of the public in response to an exercise by HM Treasury.

Most of the suggestions which might attract widespread support include reducing council spending on contracts, replacing school dinners with reduced-rate school dinner packs from supermarkets, culling further quangos, axeing further high-speed rail routes, and slashing the number of deputy head teachers and senior teachers to pre-1997 levels. Others, however, clearly reflect the contributor’s personal hobbyhorse, whether it’s the BBC, Scots devolution or immigrants.

The innovative “crowdsourcing” challenge, launched by Chancellor George Osborne on July 9, was originally open to public service workers, who responded by sending in 63,000 responses between June 23 and July 8. The department then decided to extend it to the wider public, Osborne saying: “Tell us – where’s the waste, what should we cut out, what can we improve, what’s working really well that we should be doing more of?” He said many of the ideas put forward by public sector workers are already being put into practice.

The website is now closed to ideas, but the public has until Tuesday to comb through the 45,000 submissions and rate the ones they think have the most potential to save money while impacting least on public services.

“Remember: we’re looking for ideas that can be implemented quickly to help to make savings, deliver services more efficiently and get more from less,” says the Spending Challenge website. Treasury staff are reviewing the ideas with the most potential and will investigate them in further detail to see if and how they could be taken forward for the Spending Review on October 20 and beyond.

The dozens of tags on the website range across the alphabet, from academics to zebra crossings, via other subjects, some decidedly more hot-button than others: binge drinking, banking, climate change, benefits, police and foreign aid are all represented, as are consolidation, daylight saving, magistrates and stamp duty.

The fact more than 100,000 ideas were received in a few months has plainly delighted the Treasury.

A spokesman said: “The Government is committed to engaging with all parts of society as we tackle the country’s record deficit. That’s why we asked everyone across the country – the people who use our schools, hospitals, transport systems and other public services – to send in their ideas for how to save public money and get more out of our services. We had an overwhelming response, with over 45,000 ideas submitted by the public. Now we’re asking the public to help us identify the best ideas to be taken forward and investigated in further detail.”

The exercise, however, has its critics. Laurie Penny, a London writer, journalist and feminist activist, whose Penny Red blog was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, believes the Government cynically turns its ear to public opinion when it coincides with its own agenda.

“I think it’s a way of using the principles of direct digital engagement to legitimise the Government’s programme of cuts,” she said.

“It doesn’t offer you an option, for example, to vote for no cuts, or vote for taxing the rich, or to vote for progressive changes. It only offers you a choice that is not really, at the end of the day, a choice.”

Penny points out that the Government never sought public approval for cuts of up to 40% in some departments, but with big decisions already taken, the Spending Challenge exercise has been deemed to be good for its public image – particularly when, at times such as these, people often turn on their more vulnerable neighbours.

On whether many of the public’s suggestions will eventually be taken up by the Treasury, she said: “Because there are so many options on there, the likelihood is that some of them will match what they plan to put in the Spending Review anyway, so the Government can say it is doing what the public wanted, which is the beauty of the scheme from its point of view.”

Penny has already observed that some ideas lodged on the website reflect what she termed “ludicrously punitive” attitudes towards welfare claimants and asylum seekers: one particular suggestion was that single mothers ought to be sterilised.

A submitted idea still visible on the website says some people “should be able to renounce work and be given a free (modest) house and a modest but liveable income” if they “stay single (not even allowed to date), have no kids, are castrated/sterilised, do not drink, smoke, or have sex (so they don’t get STIs), do not take drugs or have any addictions …”

The Treasury confirmed that a team moderated the suggestions to weed out those deemed to be unsuitable.

Professor John Curtice, of the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Strathclyde, thinks the exercise has some political value. He said: “Those people who have views they wish to express are given a chance to do so. Insofar as the Government is trying to take people with it down a pretty difficult path, anything that might help people feel they have at least had their say in what happens, might help make some a little happier.

“I trust no minister will stand up at the end of the day and say, ‘These are the 10 most popular ideas, and these are the 10 we are going to implement’. But there might at least be, amongst all those 45,000 ideas, the odd bright one that nobody in Government would ever have thought of and might warrant further investigation.”