Making It Work: A Participatory Project with Digital Platform Workers

Technology Policy Digital Government

Making It Work: A Participatory Project with Digital Platform Workers

Posted on: 27th September 2022
PeiChin Tay
Policy Lead (Digital Government Unit)

This article has been co-authored with ThinkPlace, a global strategy design company who is our partner on the Digital Labour Platform project. 

New models of work meet traditional policymaking

The digital platform labour (DLP) economy, characterised by the likes of ride-hailing apps, on-demand deliveries and borderless cloud work, marks a radical shift in how work is organised. However, policymakers have so far either been slow to respond or have sought to apply outdated instruments that do not suit novel ways of working.

In our comprehensive review of the digital labour platform economy, we outlined the promises and pitfalls of the sector, and we also found a clear gap in policy solutions that are more innovative and tech-positive in nature. The next step is to generate a robust evidence base of what workers need and want, and where policymakers in different countries should be focussing - this requires an innovative approach.

How can government gain insights on the anticipated and unforeseen impacts brought on by these technological trends? What aspects of a new business model are problematic, and to what extent do they present genuinely novel policy challenges? How can policymakers create solutions to problems that have little precedence?

Whilst innovative business models create new opportunities for workers and the wider economy, they also present new challenges to regulators. Current regulatory choices are shaped by labour governance systems which are premised on a majority proportion of people in standard employment. When this premise shifts, existing regulatory frameworks risk becoming inadequate to support new (non-standard) models of working.  

What is participatory design and what does design have to do with policymaking?

In keeping with the exponential growth in technology in the 21st century, policymakers need to do two things: first, they need to gain insight in order to frame the problem accurately. Secondly, they need to develop the right tools to approach complex policy issues and develop a sophisticated, proportionate response.  

Getting to the heart of these issues requires a multi-faceted understanding of the social and economic implications of our increasingly tech-driven future of work. A human-centred approach to policy research and design can provide a sound starting point. Across the world, governments and researchers are increasingly using participatory approaches to enable a more responsive and representative approach to policy-making.

The participatory design or co-design methodology is a human-centred, democratic and creative approach for solving complex problems with users and stakeholders. It promises fresh perspectives by giving users an opportunity to define and characterise the policy challenges that they are experiencing. This gives regulators and law-makers a more rounded, nuanced understanding of the problem; provides a view of the trade-offs inherent in every difficult policy question; and helps to avoid unforeseen consequences arising from policy responses. The active involvement of a diverse range of participants and stakeholders also means more innovative solutions can be ideated to tackle wicked problems.

What does it look like in practice?

As we set out in our review, the platform economy’s heterogenous nature presents regulatory challenges, as blunt or sweeping changes to regulation may end up protecting certain groups while harming others. To develop a more specific and granular perspective on what issues occur where, we partnered with ThinkPlace to conduct an immersion exercise to engage the very people most affected by platform work – the workers themselves. Given the significant differences in the motivation, experiences and aspirations of workers in different economies, we conducted a comparative study across four different socio-economic and regulatory settings: Singapore, London (UK), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Nairobi (Kenya).  

ThinkPlace conducted ethnographic research with two groups of platform workers: one with location-based platform workers like drivers and delivery riders; and one with web-based platform workers like freelancers, copywriters, and micro taskers. The research included: 

  1. In-depth interviews: Immersive exercises such as journey mapping and card sorting to illustrate a “day in the life” of a platform worker, their motivations for joining digital labour platforms and perspectives on digital controls.
  2. Diary studies and shadow exercises: A close look into what worker go through in a typical work day, through sharing photos and screen recordings of their high and low moments, to help us see their world through their eyes.
  3. Participatory focus group discussions: In-depth, facilitated conversations to understand their perspectives on fair work practices and how they defined ‘good work’. 

These approaches have yielded three useful insights so far (a full user report will be published alongside our final report):

  1. Workers expressed a strong sense of autonomy associated with choosing to enter the DLP economy. Many location-based platform workers indicated that they made a clear and conscious choice to take up platform work to earn a higher income.  Compared to standard employment, the choice to put in extra hours was absent or not adequately compensated. This is in strong contrast with the portrayal of platform workers in some parts of the mainstream media as powerless and forced to take up platform work as a last resort.
  2. Many riders and drivers shunned the policy recommendation of classifying platform workers as employees to unlock access to benefits such as sick leave. This contravenes the flexibility and autonomy which attracted them to join the DLP economy in the first place. This sentiment goes against the grain of many policy responses to platform work so far, for instance the measures taken in countries like Spain to re-classify workers as employees. This signals a possible need to consider alternatives policy measures to help platform workers mitigate against unexpected drops in income.   
  3. Workers were aware of opaque algorithmic controls, however, they also believed that algorithms are designed to be profit-driven and this would ultimately benefit them income-wise. Many riders and drivers learn through experience and sharing tips with each other on how best to ‘hack’ the platform in order to maximise their income. Greater transparency on allocation algorithm can help workers learn about ways to boost their earnings through better understanding of the various parameters for task allocation.  

The participatory approach has enabled us to take an honest look at what people’s real-life options and revealed preferences are, especially given that the effect of recent platform regulation has not been sufficiently studied to date. The key insights mentioned in this article are in contrast to some common perceptions and assumptions of what platform workers want and how they perceive their work. Our approach also addressed gaps around understanding of workers who have left platform work, so that the full spectrum of perspectives can be captured in our research. The lack of worker voice and representation is a consistent concern that has emerged in most studies. There is thus a need to dig deeper into understanding workers’ lived experience, and to co-design future possibilities together with them.

Co-creating a future of work that works for all

Worldwide, there are 1.1bn gig workers and this is expected to grow. DLPs form a significant part of the gig economy, as work (or “gigs”) become increasingly mediated online through these platforms. Many researchers and reporters have shed light on the precarity of gig work; some have described the gig economy as the canary in the coalmine of employment legislation. If the world of work is looking to be increasingly ‘gigified’, and if growth projections of non-standard employment are correct, then it is not only urgent but paramount for policymakers to get this right.

The Singapore government has rightly pointed out, “as issues become more complex, the solution is not to grow the public sector, but to grow and leverage partnerships with people”. On the regulation of Uber, the Taiwanese government crowdsourced ideas from the people using an open platform, and this has enabled them to achieve consensus on a topic that was initially divisive.

Participatory democracy not only creates more efficient and effective solutions to policy challenges, but also strengthens openness and transparency in policy-making. Having more of these conversations in the public, with the public, helps to build wider consensus for solutions and move away from the old model of interest groups competing to lobby officials in closed corridors, as revealed in the Uber Files incident.

A participatory approach facilitates the inclusion of workers and other stakeholders in the policymaking process, and this gives policymakers a good shot at co-creating a future of work that works for all.  


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