Case Study: Collaborating with the Crowd for Better Policy Development




A feedback loop of innovation in social processes and online tools has presented a new possibility, and in fact, a new reality: complex tasks such as writing an encyclopedia or a city plan are now being crowd sourced. The use of Web-based collaborative communities and tools can use labour, intelligence and interest to develop policy collaboratively, allowing the interests of the public to be better represented and engaged.

However, while the tools for such work now exist, there is no developed body of knowledge on how to engineer such collaborative communities purposefully. What are the right processes to use – collaboration, cooperation, coordination – and what are their differences? What online tools can best support these processes? How do we ensure that if we build it, they will come? If they do come, how do we ensure they achieve the right objectives?

This article explores Collabforge’s development of such a body of knowledge, supported by case studies of our work including Future Melbourne, the world’s first collaborative city plan, and wePlan, the online collaborative development of a large park management plan hosted by Parks Victoria.

Collabforge mapped the process of the City of Melbourne’s ten year planning process in order to identify opportunities for collaboration. Once these points were identified (both opportunities and necessities), a custom wiki,, was developed whose structure was specifically designed for integration with the city planning process. Collabforge has also undertaken this same process with Parks Victoria, the result being the collaborative development of a large park management plan

Collaborative Policy Development in Australia: Background and Context

The Australian public policy landscape is changing. While policy development has always involved interaction between participants from within government and diverse stakeholders outside government, there is a growing trend of participation that  bring together players previously separated by time, space and political expediency. The rise of Gov 2.0 gives governments and the public sector access to communications tools that allow new levels of collaboration, cooperation, and coordination. These tools enable powerful new modes of information sharing, citizen engagement and social connection that can invigorate traditional approaches to policy development .

Australians are early adopters of new technologies and have embraced blogs, wikis and social networking services in their millions. Recent market research from Forrester reveals that three-quarters of Australian online adults now use social media, and one-quarter create their own content[i].

While face-to-face interaction and one-to-many media remain essential for community consultation, collaborative social technologiesopen up opportunities for citizen participation that were unattainable until very recently. New trends in ‘crowdsourcing’ provide a method for the distributed production of ideas leading to greater efficiencies in knowledge generation. These methods create more open boundaries between governments, policy makers and citizens and recognise that knowledge is widely distributed throughout society.

An increasingnumber of Australian governments and public sector agencies have started using these techniques successfully to overcome some of the limitations of traditional community consultation. In November 2007 Collabforge began helping the City of Melbourne to develop its new city plan in collaboration with city officers, councillors, stakeholders and public participants located globally. The result is an award winning, world-first, wiki-based, collaborative city plan:

Collabforge worked with the City of Melbourne to map the existing city planning process and then reengineered that process to employ Gov 2.0 solutions. Most importantly, an open source wiki-based collaboration environment enabled collaboration amongst the City officers and stakeholders, as well as members of the general public, during the public participation period.

A Strategic Framework for Collaborative Policy Development

Creating collaborative policy outcomes requires careful consideration of how best to bring the various participants together to work towards a common objective. There is a tendency for organisations to focus exclusively on the tools and technologies, A common flaw in projects of this nature is that they offer an invitation to participate, whether via a blog, wiki or social network, that is divorced from any context for collaborative collective action.

In our experience,the projects that succeed are planned strategically from the outset. This ensures that important issues are considered early on, such as identifying:

  • the underlying processes you want
    your tools to articulate, augment and support;
  • the appropriate environment for
    engagement to employ and develop; and
  • the right framework for ensuring
    appropriate quality and quantity of contributions.

The need to be strategic when engaging the public is not news to those working in government. Politicians have turned constituent engagement into a science, and there is a large body of knowledge about it. Such knowledge is lacking, however, in the context of web-enabled collaborative policy development.

Traditional policy consultation typically defines how the public can engage by specifying a narrow window of participation: ‘please comment on this proposal’. This kind of narrow invitation results, not surprisingly, in a string of comments. While this outcome is easily tracked and reported, it allows little to no genuine dialogue between participants and the consulting organisation.

In 2007, Collabforge’s founder Dr Mark Elliott developed a generalised framework for collective activity applicable in any and every human context where such activities occur.[ii] In the context of collaborative policy development, this framework can provide a valuable means for thinking about and designing online engagement. This approach outlines three processes – collaboration, cooperation, and coordination –  and defines them in this context.

In doing so, the framework offers a means of identifying, classifying and interrogating collective activity (collective activity refers to any instance of human interaction, knowingly or otherwise, where there is a productive outcome of any form).


According to this framework, collaboration is a process where all participants have add/edit/delete rights to the same pool of content. This provides criteria for which to judge the relevance and applicability of collaboration to your project – is it appropriate and or possible to give all participants add/edit/delete rights? Doing so must be integrated within your objectives and your drafting process. If your collaborative process draws upon more than a few people, then it will require specialised tools (such as a wiki). If such tools are employed, risk management and community support processes such as moderation and community management will need to be closely considered (see below for more on this topic)

Collabforge mapped the process of the City of Melbourne’s ten year planning process in order to identify opportunities for collaboration. Once these points were identified (both opportunities and necessities), a custom wiki,, was developed whose structure was specifically designed for integration with the city planning process.


Cooperation is a process in which an aggregated gain is enabled by members who, while adhering to a predetermined set of rules, contribute individual units to the final outcome.
In other words, they follow a step-by-step guide to participation. The output of such a process can then be aggregated to form a net gain, for example, a corporation’s profit, the results of a survey, or more efficient resource usage through recycling. In fact, cooperation is the process traditionally employed by governments as a means of public input into policy development. A common example of cooperation in policy development is the use of a blog to introduce issues to the community and solicit comments from the community. The aggregated output of the blogging and commenting process is an increased collective


The final collective process outlined in the framework, coordination, yields outcomes that are greater than the sum of the parts it draws upon by bringing together disparate, collectively produced elements into a common space. An example is the way a search engine brings together disparate webpages and resources on the Internet.

Understanding Public Spaces for Policy Engagement

Once the underlying processes have been identified, it is critical to map out the most appropriate spaces available for public engagement. It is important to ensure that traditional opportunities for engagement are available for those not able, or not willing, to participate online. In the FutureMelbourne project, these included face-to-face Question and Answer sessions with the public, public forums, written submissions, and distribution of hard copies of the plan to local libraries and community centres.

The ‘always-on’ social web has grown rapidly in reach and appeal to become an important extension of the public sphere. People engaged in these spaces are potentially having conversations that are important to your organisational objectives, and if they are not discussing your policy initiative in this globally accessible environment, they likely will soon. Engage this space:

  • to stimulate, lead and use
    constructive discussion about your project;
  • to take an active role in shaping
    the conversation and conclusions made;
  • to create positive branding,
    marketing, innovation and reputational outcomes; and
  • to receive early warnings through
    environmental scanning

Drawing participants from the social web is a core strategy for success, as such participants will be the vanguard of contributors to online policy development. . Since the social web is a conversational space, it is crucial to identify where your issues are being talked about (e.g. city planning blogs) and to draw that conversational energy into collaborative contributions for your policy development project. The next step is to create a focal point (like the Future Melbourne wiki) that provides a compelling value proposition (to co-create Melbourne’s city plan) which catalyses public attention into meaningful contributions.

Planning for and
Managing Contribution

Once you have the attention of a number of potential participants and the necessary value proposition, effective community management becomes an imperative. Community managers act as the organisation’s interface with the participants, so they are important in setting the tone and quality of engagement in your online space. In addition to choosing someone whose personality embodies your organisation’s values and is attuned to the project’s  objectives, they must have strong collaborative skills.

For long term projects, the guidance that a community manager provides should be aimed at catalysing ‘community governance’ – the capacity for participants to share rights and responsibilities with the host organisation (e.g. moderation, welcoming newcomers, blog posting, etc). This is important as a means of vesting the responsibility for the project in the participants, thereby generating buy-in, and shared ownership – critical ingredients for collaboration.


Quantity of contribution: How do you ensure that if you build it, they will come… and

There are several approaches for ensuring quantity – many Web-based collaborative initiatives suffer from the assumption that if you build it, they will come. This is rarely the case. Instead, it is imperative to employ strategies for:

  1. attracting participants through a strong value proposition;
  2. overcoming the ‘cold start problem’ (people are hesitant to contribute when there is little or no prior contribution); and,
  3. ensuring awareness of your project through relevant promotional and marketing campaigns.

It is important to remember that just because someone visited your site, it does not mean that they will contribute collaboratively. In fact, it’s safe to assume that the majority will not. This is not a lack of interest, rather it is simply indicative of the fact that collaborative engagement requires more energy and time than simply browsing a site. Therefore, it is important to provide a range of engagement opportunities  so that you draw visitors in with activities requiring minimal energy (such as voting) while providing a pathway for them to develop their investment in and engagement with your initiative[iii].

Quality of contribution: if they do come, how do you ensure quality and a focus on the set objectives?

Quantity of contribution is just one side of the coin, the other being quality. A great starting point for ensuring quality of contribution is drawing upon the community manager to actively contribute, thereby serving as a role model for the community.

‘Guidelines for participation’ should set out rules and recommendations for all
participants regarding their contributions and interaction with other community
members. They should be hosted in a prominent location and communicate:

  • the social norms of the community;
  • the ideal quality of
  • the behaviour expected by all
    participants (which must include the host participants); and,
  • the participation methods that
    accommodate different levels and areas of interest and allow for different
    energy/time investments.

Collaborative policy development initiatives require an effective vision and engagement strategy that willestablish a collaborative premise and process, and genuinely extend goodwill to the community. Articulating this collaborative context can help alleviate community confusion and misdirection and increase the likelihood for a more constructive and high-quality outcome.


Momentum is building for Australian governments and public sector agencies to join other Western democracies in adopting more collaborative approaches to policy development using innovative social processes and Web-based tools.  The framework and methodology for collaborative policy development outlined above is based on Collabforge’s successful implementation of client projects including FutureMelbourne and wePlan. It will help government agencies establish the right collaborative context for community online engagement and help ensure your initiative achieves its set objectives.



[i] Noble, Steven (2008). ‘Australian Adult
Social Technographics Revealed’. Forrester Research.,7211,46786,00.html

[ii] Elliott, Mark (2007). Stigmergic Collaboration:
A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration. PhD thesis, Centre for Ideas,
Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.

[iii] Arnstein, Sherry R (1969). ‘A Ladder of
Citizen Participation,’ JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July, pp. 216-224, and
Partnerships UK.

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