Crowdsourcing by the State of Washington

The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.

By Christian Ettinger

Introduction: Many states are using social media to engage their citizens, but is much of that engagement, like Twitter and Facebook, superficial? Are these tools more public relations than real civic engagement? What about crowdsourcing, in which an undefined, virtual group contributes their two cents to pressing issues of public policy? Could crowdsourcing be a step beyond mere public relations toward involving citizens in policy making? With crowdsourcing, government is actually soliciting policy options from its citizens. Could crowdsourcing fundamentally change the relationship between government and citizens and turn citizens into more active stakeholders in the selection of policy choices? According to Brabham, (2010) crowd sourcing is “A means to harness collective intellect among a population in ways face to face planning meetings do not. The web is a medium for harnessing far-flung genius. It is difficult to engage the large segments of the public in a conventional fashion.”

Thesis Statement:

Is crowdsourcing technology an effective way for governments to engage citizens? This case study from the state of Washington explores the issue of whether crowdsourcing technology helps citizens feel more empowered when they directly participate in the policy making process by airing their views on specific, implementable policies.


For my case study, I have selected the state of Washington because Washington has the most developed and interactive social media in the states I surveyed with frequently updated blogs, Rss feeds and Twitter accounts. Most exciting is their innovative use of crowdsourcing technology. In Washington, Governor Gregoire has been soliciting ideas for how to reduce the state budget from her citizens in a project dubbed, Transforming Washington’s Budget.

Balancing the budget is a consequential issue and Washington’s crowdsourcing experiment could serve as a model for other states in their efforts to interact with citizens. In the project, citizens were invited to submit their ideas for cutting the budget by using IdeaScale Internet software, and the Governor, via You Tube, publicly addressed the most popular ideas, while the Office of Management and Budget provided written responses to the ideas that received the most votes online. 2,000 ideas were posted and 130,000 votes cast. Among the ideas the governor responded to include a suggestion to legalize marijuana and use the sales proceeds to balance the budget. This idea received 312 votes. In response to the proposal, the governor said, “We need to be careful about enacting a policy that is conflict with federal law.” Another popular policy to reduce the budget is getting rid of front license plates, which could save the state a $2 million a year.

In his written responses to the ideas proposed by the citizens, state budget analyst Marty Brown did not mention actually implementing any of the ideas suggested by citizens. According to his analysis, it seems that many popular ideas are not realistic because they don’t take into account the complex relationship between state and federal government. Is this an argument that only specialists should concern themselves with budget matters because citizens do not have the background to come up with real solutions? From Brown’s analysis, it does not look like any of the suggestions made in this program will be implemented. According to Brown, it seems the citizen’s suggestions either cannot be implemented, or were already being implemented or considered before this crowdsourcing experiment unfolded. Strangely enough, Brown did not address the budget reform that garnered the most votes, stopping state employees from double dipping into pension and payroll. I did not see a mention of this policy option either in Marty Brown’s written response or Governor Gregoire’s videos. But according to Kris Reitman, the Governor’s office new media manager, “A number of items found in the ideas website were considered during the legislative session including legalizing marijuana, employee salary cuts, state employee retire-rehire, public funding for the arts, creating a state bank, consolidating natural resource agencies, etc.” As for crowdsourcing’s most popular measure, double dipping, the Seattle Times (2011) reports that lawmakers are attempting to end the loophole, with HB 1981. Currently, state workers are allowed to collect a pension and a salary by going to work shortly after retirement and 2,000 state employees collect both costing the state $85 million a year. So there appears to be link between this crowdsourcing experiment and policy making.

1. Problems/Opportunities:

How do we engage citizenry that feel disengaged? Polling research (Procedure and Politics, 2011) suggests citizens often feel disconnected from their government and the decisions their government makes. This is a particular problem for government because there is no market mechanism, beyond elections, for citizens to hold their government accountable. While consumers can impact the private sector through consumption, government can often seem immune to the wishes of citizens and therefore, open communication is vitally important. The problem is only a small minority of citizens actually interact with government. Does new crowdsourcing technology provide an opportunity to bridge the divide between citizens and their government and increase citizen participation? Does the convenient nature of crowdsourcing allow more citizens to contribute and participate at little cost in terms of their time?

2. Alternatives:

Alternatives could include technology, real time engagement offline or a combination of the two. Is Internet participation enough to give the citizen the feeling of efficacy or do they need to be more directly engaged? Is participation by computer all we can realistically expect from a busy public, or is the public capable of or even demanding more engagement? Are there other virtual methods beyond crowdsourcing that would be useful? Resorting to crowdsourcing or other virtual methods may be targeting certain aspects of the electorate, while leaving other demographic groups, who have less computer skills, disengaged. The solution to this equity problem is the e-rate program in which the Federal Communications Commission doles out money to disadvantaged communities to purchase high-speed Internet technology. (Garson, 2006) The objective of e-rate is to lessen the digital divide and potentially make crowdsourcing participants more representative of the general population.

3. Issues:

The outstanding issue is whether crowd sourcing is legitimate civic engagement? Does crowdsourcing lead to policy outcomes or is it just public relations? What happened in the state of Washington as a result of this experiment? We see the government did take the suggestions from citizens seriously. I could not find a single instance in which either the Governor and budget analyst said in effect, that is a great idea that we did not come up with on our own and we will consider implementing it. But after a follow-up interview with Reitman it turns out that this crowdsourcing experiment has been consequential with many policies suggested by citizens being considered by the legislature. At this time, several ideas have already been implemented including a hiring and travel freeze and a planned 3% salary reduction for state workers. This would be evidence the crowdsourcing was actually influencing the policy discussion, potentially decisive evidence of enhanced citizen engagement.

4. Conclusions/ Recommendations:

Is crowdsourcing a useful tool for citizen engagement? Should other states and Washington agencies adopt crowd sourcing? Can crowd sourcing re-enliven the citizen government relationship? Scaerce (2010) found many examples in which crowd sourcing led to policy including in the city of Chicago. Crowdsourcing could potentially be important in enhancing citizen engagement, but the experiment in Washington needs to be promoted to other states, and the state of Washington will need to point to policies they are considering implementing that were originally generated by the crowdsourcing. This will create the needed momentum for crowdsourcing activities to spread to other states. Ohio (2009) has had some successful experiments with crowdsourcing in which ideas like producing energy from livestock waste and tax incentives for city and state wi-fi networks were taken to state legislators and regulators to implement. But due to budget constraints, Reitman said future Washington crowdsourcing ventures are being suspended. Considering the success of their recent experiment, this news is disappointing.

In conclusion, there is evidence that crowdsourcing does lead to policy outcomes both in Washington and other contexts like the state of Ohio and the city of Chicago. But has crowdsourcing made the Governor appear to be more engaged and accessible? Judging by the active participation of citizens leading to policy outcomes, one would conclude yes. Did crowdsourcing make those who participated feel more empowered? (Reitman, 2011) wrote that ‘press coverage of the ideascale website drove additional visitor traffic resulting in even greater participation numbers.’ The high traffic at the ideascale website does indicate positive momentum regarding citizens feeling more empowered. By these measurements alone, more accessible politicians and more empowered citizens, crowdsourcing may have made a positive impact in the state of Washington. But the clincher of this experiment’s efficacy would have to be the link between crowdsourcing and policy making and here we have abundant evidence that this was not just a public relation exercise, that crowdsourcing has led to policy outcomes.


Brabham, Daren C. (2010) Crowdsourcing the Public Participation Process for Planning Projects Retrieved April 25th 2011 from Planning Theory
Brown, Marty (2010) Budget Responses Retrieved April 25, 2011 from the state of Washington
Buchanan, Doug (2009) Crowdsourcing plan aims to better operation of state government retrieved May 7, 2011 from Columbus Business First
Davis, Paul (2011) On Political Disengagement retrieved May 7, 2011 from On Procedure and Politics
Garson, G David (2006) Public Information Technology and E-Governance Jones and Bartlett Publishers
Murphy, Jane (2010) Legislation would end state’s ‘retire-rehire’ policy retrieved May 7, 2011 from the Seattle Times ttp://
Reitman, Kris (2011) Interview with the Washington Governor’s office new media manager on March 1st
Reitman, Kris (2011) Interview with the Washington Governor’s office new media manager on May 5th
Scearce, Diana (2010) Connected Citizens: the Power, Peril and Potential of Social networks. Retrieved April 25, 2011 from the Knight Foundation
Transforming Washington’s Budget (2010) Retrieved March 3rd 2011, from the state of Washington
YouTube Video responses to the most popular ideas (2010) Retrieved March 3rd, 2011 from the State of Washington YouTube Channel.

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