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The case for greater use of collective intelligence in government

New tools and techniques are making it easier than ever for governments to draw on the knowledge and expertise of those outside of government to improve planning, policymaking and implementation of government programmes.

Collective intelligence is a new term to describe something which is in some respects old, but in other respects changing dramatically thanks to advances in digital technologies. It refers to the ability of large groups - a community, region, city or nation - to think and act intelligently in a way that amounts to more than the sum of their parts. It encompasses other movements - from open data to civic tech - but links them to the broader question of how governments make decisions on our behalf.

Governments in the past have sought outside opinion and involvement in many ways, from select committees to issuing draft bills for comment. But a new generation of digital platforms is making it easier than ever for governments to make use of the collective intelligence of citizens, employees and external experts, involving them in everything from policymaking to budgeting.

In our new report, Governing with Collective Intelligence, we bring together dozens of examples from around the world which point to how government could work in the future:

1. Better understanding facts and experiences: Using new digital tools to gather data from many more sources, including businesses and citizens themselves. Examples include using mobile phones to conduct micro-surveys across Africa to tracking disease outbreaks with social media.

2. Better development of options and ideas: Tapping into the collective brainpower of citizens to come up with better ideas and options for action. A good example is Better Reykjavik, a platform that helps the city council in Reykjavik, Iceland crowdsource ideas for the development of the city. Since 2011, over 100 ideas have been accepted by the city council with inputs from over 200,000 people.

3. Better, more inclusive decision-making: Involving citizens in decision making, from policymaking to planning and budgeting. Standout examples include Paris’ €500m participatory budgeting programme.

4. Better oversight of what is done: Encouraging broader involvement in the oversight of government activity, from monitoring corruption to scrutinising budgets, helping to increase accountability and transparency. Examples include the Carter Centre’s open source election monitoring software - ELMO - that allows real-time monitoring of elections and websites like Theyworkforyou, which report on the voting activities of MPs in Parliaments around the world.

These are just a few of the many inspiring examples which together point to a possible future of more engaged, connected government, that’s smarter about what it does, and better linked into its own people. It’s an alternative to competing trends towards authoritarianism, neglect of facts and evidence, and growing public distrust.

Next steps

Following on from Nesta’s report Governing with Collective Intelligence, we plan to carry out a programme of research and practical projects on the use of collective intelligence by both local and national governments, as well as multilateral organisations, such as the UN.

This work programme will focus on helping these organisations engage citizens, staff and global experts to address both issues within their organisations and problems out in the world. The programme will explore issues like how to choose a good problem to apply collective intelligence to, the new skills public servants need and the processes required for governments to make use of collective intelligence, from sorting and prioritising knowledge to feedback mechanisms.

As a practical first step, we are working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to explore the role that collective intelligence can play in understanding, mapping and ultimately addressing aspects of multidimensional poverty.

We are open to collaborations with governments, multilateral agencies and companies who would like to explore the use of collective intelligence in programme planning and delivery. Please contact [email protected] if you would like to learn more about this.


Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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