Friday, November 18, 2011

Public Sector Microtasking

Given our propensity for micromanagement I suspect many will look at the idea of micro-tasking with come skepticism, but I think the idea is worth exploring (as do others).

A primer

For the uninitiated, micro-tasking is simply the breaking-down of more complex tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. The most widely talked about micro-tasking service is Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk); which according to Wikipedia is:
a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables computer programmers (known as Requesters) to co-ordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are unable to do yet. It is one of the suites of Amazon Web Services. The Requesters are able to post tasks known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), such as choosing the best among several photographs of a store-front, writing product descriptions, or identifying performers on music CDs. Workers (called Providers in Mechanical Turk's Terms of Service) can then browse among existing tasks and complete them for a monetary payment set by the Requester. To place HITs, the requesting programs use an open Application Programming Interface (API), or the more limited MTurk Requester site. Requestors are restricted to US-based entities.

Requesters can ask that Workers fulfill Qualifications before engaging a task, and they can set up a test in order to verify the Qualification. They can also accept or reject the result sent by the Worker, which reflects on the Worker's reputation. Currently, Workers can have an address anywhere in the world. Payments for completing tasks can be redeemed on via gift certificate or be later transferred to a Worker's U.S. bank account. Requesters, which are typically corporations, pay 10 percent over the price of successfully completed HITs to Amazon.

In short, corporations post tasks that computers can't do, other people do them, and in so doing earn some small modicum of compensation. (Note if you are interested in learning more about microtasking and Amazon's Mechanical Turk, I suggest watching Aaron Koblin's TED talk: Artfully visualizing our humanity)

In practice

Aphid Farm by binux
Common public sector tasks such as translation, document formatting, fact checking, and basic editing could all be tested in a microtasking environment. While these tasks aren't necessarily sexy they are probably the easiest to manage at the outset. They can be easily broken up into smaller bits (e.g. translate this paragraph, format this 5-page PowerPoint presentation, fact check this page, etc) and are directionally straightforward. In order to ensure some modicum of consistency, users could take qualifying tests prior to being granted access to a particular category of microtask.

That said, microtasking shouldn't be limited to strictly perfunctory tasks. Service providers and policy makers could leverage the same system by presenting scenarios and asking people to complete questionnaires, say evaluating proposed changes to service delivery models or interpreting legislative or regulatory changes. There is an important caveat here, that obviously not everyone in the organization would have the requisite specialized knowledge to provide an in-depth analysis on a given topic. Meaning that feedback acquired from microtasking is more likely to be a better proxy for the general public than it is to be for a specific or specialized stakeholder group.

The motivation

One of the most common criticisms levied against microtasking is the incentive structure; why would people bother completing any of these tasks? First let me start by stating that I don't think that the problem of motivation is a deal-breaker when it comes to public sector microtasking. The answer to the problem is gamification.  If we could create a system that leveraged game mechanics while allowing users to engage the system on their own terms it offers them an opportunity for greater autonomy, mastery and purpose; qualities that Dan Pink argues are the hallmarks of motivation.

I've argued in the past that:

An increasingly diverse workforce coupled with an increasingly diverse scope of work means our organizational models have to contend with increasingly jagged edges, wider gaps and unforeseen overlaps. Upon closer reflection, my gut tells me that if we took the time to examine our organizational structures more closely we would find conflict at the jagged edges, delays at the gaps, and duplication at the overlaps.

It also means that many public servants oscillate between periods of hyperactivity and lethargy in the workplace. I think the most compelling benefit of a microtasking system would be that it would help alleviate the pressure of both ends of the spectrum. Those who were incredibly busy could more easily surge as required because they could gain access and expertise from those whom were less busy at that particular moment in time.

Some of our most basic performance issues stem from the fact that few of us have things we can work on when everything else has been accomplished. If you have ever heard anyone say that they had to stretch their workload over the week you know what I am getting at. The problem, at its core, is that we (public servants) don't have a common place to aim our cognitive surplus.

Imagine what we could do if we did.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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