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Crowdsourcing global governance: sustainable development goals, civil society, and the pursuit of democratic legitimacy


To what extent can crowdsourcing help members of civil society overcome the democratic deficit in global environmental governance? In this paper, I evaluate the utility of crowdsourcing as a tool for participatory agenda-setting in the realm of post-2015 sustainable development policy. In particular, I analyze the descriptive representativeness (e.g., the degree to which participation mirrors the demographic attributes of non-state actors comprising global civil society) of participants in two United Nations orchestrated crowdsourcing processes—the MY World survey and e-discussions regarding environmental sustainability. I find that there exists a perceptible demographic imbalance among contributors to the MY World survey and considerable dissonance between the characteristics of participants in the e-discussions and those whose voices were included in the resulting summary report. The results suggest that although crowdsourcing may present an attractive technological approach to expand participation in global governance, ultimately the representativeness of that participation and the legitimacy of policy outputs depend on the manner in which contributions are solicited and filtered by international institutions.

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Fig. 1

Sources: MYWorld2015 Analytics (2013), UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015), Barro and Lee (2013) and UNDP (2015)

Fig. 2

Source: UNDP (2013, 6)


  1. 1.

    The 11 thematic consultations covered the following development issues: Conflict and Fragility, Education, Energy, Environmental Sustainability, Food Security and Nutrition, Governance, Growth and Employment, Health, Inequality, Population Dynamics, and Water.

  2. 2.

    Available online at

  3. 3.

    Available online at

  4. 4.

    The total number of respondents acquired through paper ballot, SMS text message, and website adds up to only 95 % of the overall survey population. The means by which the other 5 % of respondents contributed to the survey remains unclear.

  5. 5.

    Among the four largest contributing states (India, Mexico, Nigeria, and Yemen), only minor differences in the ranking of the top three development priorities was observed, with the lone exception being India, whose participants rated “access to clean water and sanitation” as the third most important policy goal. No other state ranked that priority any higher than seventh (Yemen).



Human Development Index


Millennium Development Goals


Non-governmental organizations


Sustainable Development Goals


United Nations


United Nations Development Group


United Nations Development Programme


United Nations Environment Programme


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joshua C. Gellers.



For the MY World survey, I report existing aggregated data pertaining to age, education, gender, and the HDI level of a respondent’s country, all of which is readily available on the survey’s website in rich, graphical detail. I then compare demographics of respondents across the three participatory platforms utilized in the process—paper ballot, SMS text messaging, and the MY World website. The purpose here is to explore the extent to which participation varies across participatory platforms in a global crowdsourcing effort.

For the e-discussions, I present original data on the distribution of global participants in terms of country, HDI level, language, and region (according to World Bank categories) derived from independent coding of every unique posted comment in which values for all demographic variables could be identified, not including repeated contributions from the same poster (175 of the 960 total comments for the entire thematic consultation). In coding the e-discussions, I did not record the demographic attributes of networks, NGOs, or other collaborative organizations, as it was often neither possible nor appropriate to identify a single geographic location represented by such entities (see Fig. 3 for an example of a comment excluded from the database due to lack of demographic information).

Fig. 3

Comment from e-discussion on environmental sustainability and equality (April 15–May 26, 2013)

In addition, I compare the demographics of participants in the e-discussions to those of the individuals whose perspectives were explicitly cited in the report summarizing the thematic consultation on environmental sustainability. The purpose of this second step is to assess the degree of consonance between the raw (albeit moderated) voices present in the e-discussion and the subsequent policy document alleging to synthesize the chorus of global contributions.

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Gellers, J.C. Crowdsourcing global governance: sustainable development goals, civil society, and the pursuit of democratic legitimacy. Int Environ Agreements 16, 415–432 (2016).

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  • Sustainable development
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Democracy
  • Civil society
  • Environmental governance