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Crowdsourced Ideas Make Participating in Government Cool Again
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Crowdsourced Ideas Make Participating in Government Cool Again

By Ines Mergel, assistant professor of public administration at Syracuse University

Harnessing the knowledge citizens and government employees share on social media applications in the public sector is a tricky challenge of the Government 2.0 era. Every day, thousands of citizens comment on government Facebook posts and blog entries or reshare information published on Twitter. Rarely has government had the opportunity to harvest innovative ideas and knowledge published through these channels. The main reason many agencies set up an organizational account is still “to be where the people are.” Recently, ‘open innovation’ platforms have started to address this disconnect, providing the public with the capability to interact and brainstorm alongside government officials. Simply put, these platforms make participating in government cool again.

Opening government to crowdsourced ideas

Social media tools — such as blogs, Twitter and 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 face 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 is too expensive to access or simply isn’t available. They also help to improve participation and engagement of citizens. Crowdsourcing provides a platform for governments to engage citizens directly in the decision-making process.

Virtually any topic within government can be crowdsourced, 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 designed 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 solicit cost-saving ideas from employees. 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 calls for ideas from constituents designed to stimulate innovation. Some of these platforms allow citizens to vote on each others’ 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 or rewards, such as a ride with the police chief for a day in the city of Manor, TX.

Platforms and their uses differ depending on the goals and needs of each agency. Some platforms, such as the New York City’s 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 details. 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. You internal sandbox can provide valuable insights to streamline the process for public challenges.
• Design participation incentives: Think about monetary and non-monetary giveaways 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:

Challenges and prizes in government have the potential to reinvigorate government operations, injecting new ideas into government that otherwise need to be purchased from vendors and consultants. An important effect of the platforms is a newfound 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. It’s a win-win all around!

Ines Mergel, who runs the blog Social Media in the Public Sector, is an assistant professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. Her research focuses on informal social networks in the public sector and the use of social media applications by government organizations. She teaches classes on social media management, Government 2.0, social network analysis, and networked governance. 

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