In 2010, the United States Federal government launched Challenge.gov, an online platform that engages the public in solving pressing issues facing federal agencies. Agencies can create challenges, review proposals from the public, and then award prizes to the top entries. As an example, the Department of Education launched a challenge to develop an application that helps students make better decisions of which careers to pursue. The challenge received over five hundred submissions and allowed the Department of Education to initiate a top-rated application that connected thousands of students to the resources and information needed to pursue technical education or to access retraining programs when their jobs had been displaced.
The federal government should increase its funding in open innovation platforms to source and solve issues. In particular, there are important reasons why governments should adopt open innovation platforms: (1) most agencies do not have the expertise to innovate as quickly a crowdsourced platform; (2) the cost to innovate for a large bureaucracy is higher than those using a crowdsourcing platform; and (3) it allows agencies explore a wide variety of solutions to issues often overlooked by large agencies. Crowdsourcing platforms minimize risk and encourage innovation by receiving hundreds of solutions but only paying for those that meet the criteria they set for the competition. Online tools are making it easier for government institutions to get more diverse help and more members of the public to participate in problem solving by sharing their knowledge and expertise. But organizations need individuals with technical background to successfully run such platforms.
A key decision taken by Executive branch is to invest in talented, tech-minded individuals who can apply their technical expertise to address issues facing the government. In particular, the Obama Administration launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, an initiative that pairs individuals with a technical background from outside government with top Federal innovators to implement game-changing projects that make the Federal Government work better for the American people. In addition to the Fellows, the federal government launched the US Digital Service, a one year-tour for individuals with coding, design, and technical backgrounds to improve government services. Recruiting diverse, technical talent is a necessary first step in improving the adoption of technologies in federal agencies.
The federal government ought to encourage state and local governments to adopt open innovation platforms – similar to Challenge.gov – as a means of better identifying local issues and announcing challenges to solve them. An example of this occurred in Mexico City, where the city government kept getting complaints that there was no public information on the routes the buses took; it was impossible for the roughly three million riders to plan a route from point A to point B. The Mayor, partnered with a local organization, Mapaton, to generate open data of the public transport routes. They designed a game where users could upload their routes, and aggregated the data that mapped all the routes. After 17 days of mapping with 3.6K riders, the entire city was mapped. For the millions of riders that depended on public transportation, they now had access to all the routes and were able to cut commute cost and time. Examples like these demonstrate that governments do not necessarily have to solve issues, but rather can convene the right players to do so.
The federal government should provide incentives for state and local governments to adopt open innovation platforms. One way to encourage such adoption would be to require local governments who use federal funding to include crowdsourced solutions as part of their request for proposal (RFP) process when soliciting offers. In addition, state governments should replicate programs similar to the US Digital Service that attract technical talent to leverage new technologies in the public sphere. Such actions can help to reduce costs innovate, improve public engagement, and engage a broader, diverse set of stakeholders in civic engagement.