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 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

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

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 ( Other platforms are mostly used to crowdsource citizen ideas on how to innovate government operations, such as Harford County’s Innovation portal (

Designing challenges

While we truly observe only the first lighthouse projects and experiments with Open Innovation platforms, designing challenges is relatively easy. GSA’s 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  x


Department of Veterans Affairs VAi2 – Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative  x  x
NASA NASA Idea Central  x
GSA  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:


“The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy” revisited for Government 2.0

I was having lunch with a colleague of mine today and I was talking about the first results of the three studies I am working on to understand how public managers are using social media application. One of the findings is the surprisingly low number of followers and friends government agencies have on social networking sites, which means in turn, that it would be interesting to understand what incentives citizens need to participate and network with government online. Another finding in my wiki study is, that it is unclear how public employees can be incentivized to extend their current obligations and daily tasks to include additional activities using collaborative technologies, such as wikis to help their colleagues in other departments by sharing their knowledge. How do we get quality contributions from those employees in the agency who have enough institutional knowledge that would help others with unsolvable questions to find a solution? Beth Kanter points in her recent pdf talk to the fact, that Nonprofits should not leave the social media work up to their interns – just because they are tech savvy enough and are quick in handling and understanding social media doesn’t mean that they know the substance of the organization.

In trying to find a solution or approaches on how to solve these two problems, a colleague pointed me to Titmuss’ work on human blood banks: 1970, Richard Titmuss published his seminal work “The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy” in which he described that economic analysis has its limits when it comes to rare exchanges and gifts, such as blood. Titmuss showed in his work that in crisis situations (or shortages of human blood) the prize for blood goes up: blood banks are willing to pay or raise the prize they pay donors to give blood. This attracts those people who don’t necessarily give blood for the purpose of serving a higher good (and who are usually donating), but those who otherwise don’t donate and are desperately attracted by the additional income. Which in turn means that those are people with a diet that might not include expensive whole foods, but a rather high degree of processed foods and who are therefore prone to have a lower blood quality and potentially diseases. The result in short is: The quantity of new blood supply rises, but the quality overall is lowered.

The connection I see between the blood bank insights and incentives to network/share/collaborate/engage using social media is, that while it is really helpful to show that a specific government agency is able to attract a significant number of followers or friends on a social networking site, the mere quantity and even the measurement of hits won’t deliver the insights that are necessary to understand if we are making a (quality) difference using social media. We want to reach those citizens with valuable insights, who don’t have the time to come to town hall meetings because of their family status, work schedules, kids, etc. and not only the usual suspects who always show up but don’t deliver additional insights. Social media channels might help to reach those who are unreachable through traditional forms of engagement.

We will need to design incentives in ways that help to attract those public employees who have insights that are valuable, give them the time and acknowledgment of their expert status so that they are able to squeeze the time in to help others and make it worth their effort. I have been thinking a lot about personnel evaluations, but I believe that indirect incentives might do the trick: free up time to collaborate and share knowledge by hiring additional help, giving people an extra day off (without a pay-cut of course), etc. It seems as if a lot of Gov2.0 folks are also thinking about games, such as incentives that flow through the social network and build participation pressure, such as Zynga’s Farmville or Foursquare’s badges.

I don’t have a fully thought-out solution to offer at the moment, but am in the process of developing a framework to measure trust, impact, reach, sentiments and quality of contributions on social networking sites in the public sector. Stay tuned for updates!

Open Government Plans on Transparency, Participation and Collaboration

Federal agencies and departments had to publish their (draft) plans of their proposed changes to increase transparency, participation and collaboration as part of the Whitehouse’s Open Government Initiative last week. As Beth Noveck, United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative (OSTP) writes on the Whitehouse blog:

The plans are chock full of examples of concrete efforts — not lip service — to making open government happen in practice and creating genuine opportunity for meaningful and practical civic engagement.

Except for two agencies, all plans seem to meet the expectations in this early stage. I am currently in the process of evaluating the collaborations parts of all 29 plans and will post my results soon.