White House releases new #DigitalGov Strategy

The White House released a new digital government strategy “Digital Government: Building a 21st century platform to serve the American people“, followed by a Presidential Directive. In the directive the President points out: ”

The main points of the roadmap include:

– data.gov is a starting point for new forms of data innovation
– tool/device agnostic (Bring Your Own Device)
– digital government is not about mobile apps/smartphones, instead it’s about connecting people to the data and have them help each other -> important for mobile-not-haves
– private sector and citizen innovators as central parts of the strategy


Crowdsourced Ideas Make Participating in Government Cool Again (PA Times October 2011)

The PA Times, published by the American Society of Public Administration, has just issued a special edition called “From Bureaucratic to Cool: A Call for Public Service”. My article on “Crowdsourced Ideas Make Participating in Government Cool Again” describes how government agencies on all levels are turning to Open Innovation platforms to collect the wisdom of the crowds either from their employees or from the public in general. They are closing an important gap that social media platforms so far were not able to address: open innovation platforms are proving a mechanism for targeted knowledge sourcing and knowledge incubation. Innovative ideas and knowledge are not hidden among thousands of comments on Facebook or retweets on Twitter. One of the most prominent examples is Challenge.gov run by GSA – that has just celebrated its first anniversary.

Here is the full reference:

Mergel, I. (2011): Crowdsourced Ideas Make Participating in Government Cool Again, in: PA Times, American Society for Public Administration, Vol. 34, No. 4, October 2011, p. 4 & 6, Special Issue: From Bureaucratic to Cool: A Call for Public Service.

Here is the original text that was cross-posted as an editorial on Crowdsourcing.org:

Challenges as game changers for collaborative knowledge incubation in the public sector

Harnessing the knowledge citizens and government employees are willing to share on social media applications in the public sector is one of the most difficult things to do in the era of Government 2.0. Every day thousands of citizens are commenting on government Facebook posts and blog entries or reshare information published on Twitter. Rarely has government the opportunity to harvest innovative ideas and knowledge that is published through these channels. The main reason for many agencies to set up an organizational account is still “to be where the people are”. Recently Open Innovation platforms have started to address this disconnect and are providing an easy access to participate in making government cool again.

Opening government to crowdsourced ideas

Social media tools, such as blogs, Twitter or Facebook, are great channels to collect and encourage citizens to provide their insights on the issues and plans of government. Unfortunately, today’s standard social networking services do not have the capability to automatically extract and collate new knowledge or ideas from content that citizens are submitting through the existing commenting channels. In some cases the sheer volume of comments makes proper analysis very difficult. The challenge is to extract new ideas or valuable insights from the influx of comments in a productive and efficient way.

One challenge that agencies are facing when they are using social media is that it is really difficult to access the knowledge that is potentially created in retweets or Facebook comments. For one, the sheer volume of comments an agency receives has become unmanageable. Dashboard solutions, such as Radian6 might help to give a general overview how the “temperature” is among audiences retweeting and commenting on issues government is concerned about. It becomes far more challenging to actually curate content and extract new ideas and innovative knowledge out of the steady flow of information that comes into government with every tweet or comment.

Open innovation platforms are designed to fill this gap. Using a crowdsourcing approach, government can use the platform for an open call to a large, usually undefined group of people (all citizens, potential contractors or industry representatives, citizen programmers, etc.), so that many different people can contribute to the solution of a complex government task. The platform then helps to direct and coordinate the input of citizens (or application developers, knowledge matter experts, companies, etc.) – which is oftentimes messy and overwhelming on social media channels. These Open Innovation mechanisms to crowdsource solutions are useful for issues where expert knowledge might not be available or is too expensive to access. They also help to improve participation and engagement of citizens. Crowdsourcing provides a platform for governments to engage citizens directly into the decision making process.

Virtually any topic can be crowd-sourced within government, meaning that agencies can post an issue in the form of a “challenge” and ask for the submission of solutions. The focus is on innovation, creativity and the generation of new ideas from stakeholders and/or subject matter experts. In some cases the Open Innovation platform allows participation not only to submit their ideas, but also to provide additional information on how their idea can be executed, and every participant can comment on all other submitted ideas. The agency will select the best solution or set of solutions and the winners are often compensated in some way. This approach is more cost effective than the traditional requests for proposals, which are often time-consuming and have a very specific design criteria and solution in mind. A challenge opens the conversation and allows the “crowd” to come up with the solution, often without rigid requirements.

Open innovation platforms are design to coordinate and streamline the submission and influx of innovative ideas. Local governments are also using open innovation platforms in a similar fashion. New York City’s “NYC SimpliCity” is used to generate cost-saving ideas from employees. The City of Mesa, Arizona’s iMesa program is a response to the economic downturn, designed to collect citizens’ ideas to save money. Harford County, Maryland’s Idea Factory also solicits ideas from constituents designed to stimulate new ideas and innovation. Some of these platforms allow citizens to vote on each other’s ideas and earn “points” for every online activity they perform on the platform. In some localities these virtual points can be traded in for real-life products, such as a ride with the police chief for a day in the City of Manor, TX (see http://www.cityofmanor.org/labs).

Platforms and their use differ depending on the goals and needs of each agency. Some platforms, such as the New York City Simplicity platform are used for internal purposes only. City employees are asked to help the city be more innovative and help to save costs during major budget crunches (http://www.nyc.gov/html/simplicity). Other platforms are mostly used to crowdsource citizen ideas on how to innovate government operations, such as Harford County’s Innovation portal (http://harfordcountymd.spigit.com/Page/Home).

Designing challenges

While we truly observe only the first lighthouse projects and experiments with Open Innovation platforms, designing challenges is relatively easy. GSA’s Challenge.gov for example provides the platform for free to all federal agencies and challenge administrators can follow a relatively straightforward process.

The devil lies in the detail. Here are a few lessons learned from Open Innovation administrators who started to experiment with their local platforms:

  • Start by carefully crafting the problem statement you want your employees or citizens to solve. The challenge has to be posed in plain language so that non-experts immediately understand the problem.
  • Experiment with challenges in-house first before opening the floodgates to the public. Your internal sandbox can provide valuable insights to streamline the process for public challenges.
  • Design participation incentives: Think about monetary and non-monetary give-aways that no one else offers and make it worth participating in the challenge. Showcasing submitted solutions on your website can be an incentive for citizens to participate – others might want a monetary return on their time and ideas invested in helping government.
  • Set a time limit: Close your challenge after a predefined time and make sure that you communicate the duration and elapsed time to your participants. Having that one time opportunity to submit an idea can also serve as an incentive for participants.
  • Create a transparent evaluation process: Post the evaluation steps and experts involved in judging the submitted solutions prominently on your website.
  • Communicate how you plan to implement the final solution. Throughout the implementation process make sure to show the value of the crowdsourced solution: How much money was saved? Why are government operations now running smoother than before?

The following table provides an overview of current open innovation platforms on all levels of government:

  Agency name Platform name

Platform open to

Employee idea generation

Citizen idea generation


New York City NYC Simplicity  x
Mesa, AZ iMesa  x  x
Maricopa County, AZ Idea Factor for “Rewarding Ideas”  x
City of Manor, TX Manor Labs  x
Harford County, MD Harford County Innovation portal  x

State government

State of Washington Transforming Washington’s Budget  x
State of Vermont BroadbandVT.org  x


Department of Veterans Affairs VAi2 – Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative  x  x
NASA NASA Idea Central  x
GSA Challenge.gov  x

Figure 2: Local, State and Federal Open Innovation Platforms

Challenges and prizes in government have the potential to reinvigorate government operations, inject new ideas into government that otherwise need to be purchased from vendors and consultants. An important effect of the platforms is a new-found transparency and accountability: Citizens and employees feel that their voices are heard and are willing to participate and engage with government again in the future. A win-win all around!

Author bio:

Ines Mergel is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Department of Public Administration and International Affairs, Center for Technology and Information Policy (CTIP), Syracuse University. eMail: iamergel@maxwell.syr.edu

National Archives & FourSquare use: Walk in the Footsteps of the Presidents

I recently attended a webinar hosted by GSA’s Web Manager University who is hosting a series of New Media Talks. I attended a talk by Charles Birnbaum, who is responsible for Business Development and Partnerships at FourSquare.com. on the use of FourSquare in government. He was accompanied by Jill James, social media lead at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Here some of the take aways from the FourSquare webinar:

FourSquare is a location-based service that provides a smartphone application that helps people check-in at a specific geographic location with the goal to bridge online and offline activities. With every check-in users earn points – more points when they check in at many different locations, less points when they check in repeatedly at the same location. The points accumulate and incentives in forms of badges and mayorships are given for accomplishments, such as a fitness badge when a user checks in 10 times in a row at his local gym:

For businesses, or all types of other organizations, that want to stay in touch with their customers or citizens Foursquare provides a way to brand a specific product or location. To create a brand page or a page for a physical location of an agency where citizens have frequent physical interactions with or can physically walk in, a web destination can be created and the administrators of the page can start to design contests and incentives for their users’ check-ins:

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was one of the first government agencies in the U.S. that started to use FourSquare to attract and engage visitors to their physical, but also online locations (for more information see a recent press release: The National Archives Plays Foursquare!).

NARA uses the FourSquare web landing page as well as Foursquare’s smartphone applications to share tips by knowledge matter experts and citizens about documents and their physical locations around the country. Experts create tips and educational material for specific physical locations, such as historical sites in Boston, NYC, Philadelphia or Washington, DC, and citizens can learn and engage with those records with every FourSquare check-in:

As an example, a recent initiative called “Walk in the footsteps of the Presidents” guided FourSquare users in collaboration with the Presidential Libraries through the historic events and documents of past U.S. Presidents. Users learn about historical sites, major speeches, dedications, events, but also fun facts, such as code names or favorite restaurants:

The use of FourSquare fits into NARA’s overall Social Media Strategy to engage, collaborate and build communities around records and documents:

Our Core Values for Social Media

Collaboration: Together as one NARA and as partners with the public to accomplish our mission
Leadership: Out in front among government agencies and cultural institutions
Initiative: An agency of leaders who are passionate, innovative, and responsible
Diversity: Making NARA a great place to work by respecting diversity and all voices
Community: Caring about and focusing on the government community, citizen archivists, and each other
Openness: Creating an open NARA with an authentic voice

Many questions of the webinar participants were focused on the “How To” of FourSquare, individual branding, or claiming of landing pages and physical locations.

Two other important issues came up:

1) FourSquare records are not necessarily considered social media records and agencies who want to use FourSquare to engage with their audience need to think about records management. NARA uses FourSquare tips to link to other existing records, that are already scheduled for archiving – so that they consider FS updates as temporary records that are not archived.

2) FourSquare is a great example of a social media tool that can’t only be administered by the IT or Public Affairs team. Instead, NARA suggests to get subject matter experts of a government agency involved in creating tips for FourSquare users. They make it easy for content experts to create tips in an Excel spreadsheet that serves at the same time as a central database.

Read more about social media records management on the following NARA blog conversation: Records Express and the NARA bulletin 2011-02: Guidance on Managing Records in Web 2.0/Social Media Platforms.

Among many different topics on citizen engagement, GSA’s How To page offers guidance for agencies on how to use social media in government.

Data.gov in the classroom: Government 2.0 syllabus

Data.gov in the classroom features resources for K-12, Universities, and Education in the World. Among them is Karim Lakhani’s Data.gov case study developed at Harvard Business School, Beth Noveck’s Democracy Design Workshop Do Tank, and now also my Government 2.0 syllabus.

I have been teaching this class for the last three years and the online syllabus shows a combination of resources I use for a semester-long course. As one of the motivations why my MPA students might find it valuable to participate, I use President Obama’s Open Government and Transparency memo, that asks the executive departments and agencies to be more participatory, transparent and collaborative. Especially in the class on Transparency, I refer to data.gov and the students have to think about ways to motive (local) government to provide datasets, make those datasets machine readable and how citizens can use the data provided.

My “Government 2.0 Revisited” article wins 2010 H. George Frederickson Best Article Award

My “Gov 2.0 Revisited: Social Media Strategies in the Public Sector” article won the PA Times’ 2010 H. George Frederickson Best Article Award.

Here is what I submitted as the acceptance note for the January/February 2011 PA Times issue:

“I am very honored to accept the PA TIMES Best Article Award for 2010, and would like to thank the award committee for their hard work in reviewing what were undoubtedly a large group of high quality submissions.

Government 2.0 is not only a hot topic at the moment, it is an important one. I believe that the use of social media applications is at a tipping point, moving from early innovators toward broader acceptance among government professionals. These technologies often challenge the way that public employees conduct their work, but as the use of Government 2.0 grows we will observe more changes in the way information is organized and distributed, as well as in the way information is co-created by citizens and absorbed by government.

In this early stage of Government 2.0, the use of social media in the public sector is often labeled as the “Wild West of e-Government.” However, we are beginning to move into a convergence phase–where the reality of government operations merges with the new reality of social networking services: both will have to adapt to these new challenges. What is missing is clear guidance on best practices and acceptable strategies for effectively using social media applications to support the missions and practices of government organizations. The interviews I conducted with current social media directors for this PA TIMES article highlight not only challenges and hurdles, but also the positive impacts so social media can have in the public sector. Government is already part of the public conversations that are happening on social networking sites; therefore, public managers need to understand where and how these conversations evolve–and become a part of them.

I believe that both researchers and government practitioners have a lot of interesting ground to cover in the next few years. And, I for one, am excited to be a part of that. Thank you again for recognizing the importance of this fascinating and growing area of public administration practice and research.”

Article reference:
Mergel, I. (2010): Government 2.0 Revisited: Social Media Strategies in the Public Sector, in: PA Times, American Society for Public Administration, Vol. 33, No. 3, p. 7 & 10.

My other related publications on Government 2.0 topics:

Mergel, I. Web 2.0 in the Public Sector, with Schweik, C., in: Public Service, and Web 2.0 Technologies: Future Trends in Social Media (under review)

Mergel, I.: Measuring the effectiveness of social media tools in the public sector, in: Public Service, and Web 2.0 Technologies: Future Trends in Social Media (under review)

Mergel, I. (accepted for publication): Government networks, in: Encyclopedia of Social Networking, Editors: Barnett, George, Golson, J. Geoffrey, Sage Publications.

Mergel, I. (2010): The use of social media to dissolve knowledge silos in government, in: O’Leary, R., Kim, S. and Van Slyke, D. M. (Editors): The Future of Public Administration, Public Management and Public Service Around the World: The Minnowbrook Perspective, Georgetown University Press, pp. 177-187.

Mergel, I., Gardner, M., Broviak, P., Greeves, B.: MuniGov20, A New Residency Requirement: Local Government Professionals in Second Life, in: Journal of Virtual World Research, Special Issue: Virtual Worlds and Government (accepted for publication in 2011)

Bretschneider, S. I., Mergel, I. (2010): Technology and Public Management Information Systems: Where have we been and where are we going, in: Menzel, D.C., White, H. J.: The State of Public Administration: Issues, Problems and Challenges, M.E. Sharpe Inc., New York, pp. 187-203.

USGS asks citizen scientists on Twitter “What is happening?”

Yesterday, Kara Capelli, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, joined my “Government 2.0” at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University via Skype video call. Kara shared her insights on the use of social media applications at USGS and specifically on the very innovative use of their Twitter accounts.

USGS’s social media strategy includes the use of Twitter, YouTube, RSS feeds and blogs, podcasts, photosharing on Flickr and Facebook accounts.

One account among the long list of social media accounts is especially remarkable: The USGSted account – Twitter Earthquake Detector (TED) – asks so-called “citizen scientists” what is happening in their geographic location. USGS automatically searches tweets for hashtags such as #earthquake and compiles the tweets on a Google Map mashup – geotagging tweets to understand where in the world citizens feel the earth shaking. The large number of tweets then makes it worthwhile to pay attention to specific geographic locations around the world where earthquake activities might happen. One example is the recent earthquake in Pakistan.

At USGS, the tweets are obviously not used as a scientific method – and will certainly never replace science. Instead, they are used as a way to collect citizen feedback, sentiments or indicators of potential damages. Going forward, the tool might have the potential to help emergency responders to find affected citizens, as a method to create social awareness among neighborhood networks, to understand how resilient citizens are or even as a tool for neighborhood responsiveness.

The USGSted account was recently selected as Twitter’s only government showcase (URL was removed from Twitter’s homepage this week, will update as soon as it is back online).

Additional press coverage:

Government Computer News: Earthquakes are something to tweet about

Business Insider: Twitter-based Earthquake Detection System in Development

Christian Science Monitor: Earthquake alerts: shake, rattle, and Twitter