BBC Goes Crowdsourcing To Save The NHS

This morning the Today programme devoted two in-show trails to its how-to-cut-NHS-spending-without-feeling-the-pain feature.

It’s a nice conceit – the politicians are reluctant to talk about cuts in general terms and any suggestion that the NHS in particular will suffer is political suicide.

credit: Tulip Diva
credit: Tulip Diva

So Evan Davis and co are throwing it out to the ‘informed listener’ – the NHS doctors, nurses, administrators, consultants, suppliers – to come up with some practical answers.

Whether they know it or not they are also embarking on a crowdsourcing experiment.

The coinage of the term belongs to Wired journalist Jeff Howe. (Incidentally, fellow Wired alumni Chris Anderson is responsible that other buzzphrase favoured by the digerati, The Long Tail). 

In Howe’s own words, crowdsourcing:

is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

So in this case, the designated agent (the politician and his phalanx of advisers and civil servants) has indirectly outsourced the question to a large group of people (the one million plus NHS workforce plus its supply chain and former empolyees).

In his authoritative 2008 book Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business Howe poses a related, if more ambitious, question for health professionals: can the crowd cure cancer?

‘It’s not as remote a prospect as it sounds,’ says Howe and cites Stanford University’s Folding@home project which:

which uses the excess capacity of hundreds of thousands of individual PCs to simulate protein folding—the process in which proteins combine to form biological molecules—a crucial step in understanding diseases like cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

From my reading of Howe’s work here are three suggestions that would improve the BBC experiment and increase the likelihood of coming up with something genuinely useful:

1. Share the wisdom. Don’t keep the ideas in-house, waiting for some designated day when you pick the best of the emails. Instead curate all the ideas and make them available online. Refining other people’s work – or tweaking in geekspeak – is the best way to to deliver something really different. It is the model that worked for the open source software movement.  

2. Ask the uninformed. The problem with great minds is that they think alike. Those inculcated in the NHS culture are likely to come up with similar solutions. Outsiders may provide a spark of originality that in turn leads to a truly innovative answer to the question. In order to solve complex questions sometimes you need minds that think differently.

3. Offer prize money. The crowd is incentivised in different ways – pride that their work has been recognised but also that there is a monetary value to their contribution. Prizes and the BBC are uncomfortable bed-fellows after the 2007 phone-in scandals. But this is different. They’re trying to save the NHS, after all.

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7 thoughts on “BBC Goes Crowdsourcing To Save The NHS”

  1. Excellent post Jon. Many lessons for all areas of the elites, particularly in the context of the lessons from the recent expenses scandal.

    People want to be heard and they want a say. Practical examples such as this one are really valuable.

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