Web tools can help agencies collect innovative ideas
New ideas Web sites let agencies get a welcome earful
President Barack Obama recently conducted an online town hall meeting, answering questions from the public. The application allowed users to submit questions and rate submitted ones, and Obama answered the highest-rated questions.
Obama used a similar tool during the campaign, soliciting ideas that people ranked on his Change.gov Web site. Those ideas were then packaged into a report for the then-candidate.
“Whatever idea you submit is visible to everyone else,” said Daniel Burton, senior vice president of global public policy at Salesforce.com, whose Ideas platform was the Web application that Change.gov used. “In that sense, it is really a forum for direct democracy.”
And it is also a useful tool for tapping the creative power of crowds that have a vested interest, as a growing number of agencies are finding out.
The Transportation Security Administration is using an ideas application internally to get input from its workforce, while Virginia has a public site that residents can use to have their say on where the state can improve. White House officials see the technology as a way to open a direct line of communication between the government and public.
Ideas applications do not use overly complicated technology, but like many so-called Web 2.0 tools, they are only as useful and successful as you make them. In other words, if you create an ideas site and ask for input but then ignore the suggestions, people will quickly lose interest.
TSA was inspired to build an ideas platform after seeing the success of computer manufacturer Dell’s Ideastorm site, which is also built on Salesforce.com’s platform. Ideastorm has garnered hundreds of thousands of ideas and votes, including an idea Dell followed through on to sell a laptop with the Linux operating system.
With 50,000 employees working at 450 airports spread across the country, communication is challenging but a priority for TSA leadership, said Lauren Gaches, a TSA spokeswoman.
“Our leadership was looking for a way to communicate directly with our workforce,” Gaches said.
A team of three federal employees developed TSA’s Idea Factory application in seven weeks using Microsoft's .NET and SQL Server. A team of in-house developers supports, maintains and enhances the application.
Like Salesforce.com’s Ideas, the TSA application lets employees post and vote on ideas. The ideas with the most votes rise to the top. Then TSA’s leadership looks at those ideas and, in some cases, makes changes in the way it does business.
“We are able to listen to our workforce and hear their ideas directly from them,” Gaches said.
Before Idea Factory, TSA relied on traditional communication methods such as newsletters and e-mail.
A job-swap program for TSA officers began as a suggestion on Idea Factory. Before the program, officers who wanted or needed to move had to request a transfer and wait for a job to open at the desired airport.
With the job-swap program as originally suggested on Idea Factory, officers are able post their desire to move. If an officer in the destination airport wants to make the switch, and the two meet certain criteria, they are allowed to swap jobs.
“It puts them in direct contact with one another, and it immediately fills the position at the airports they’re leaving,” Gaches said.
Another Idea Factory idea allows officers to wear black mourning bands over their badges in memory of deceased employees and for other national mourning declarations.
The ideas application also helped launch a day-in-the-life program in which TSA’s leaders and managers spend a day at an airport working alongside security officers to gain first-hand experience about their jobs.
Gaches said the TSA ideas program is successful because it started with a simple concept and then grew.
“When we launched the site, it didn’t have nearly as many capabilities as it does now, and we’ve been able to grow and develop the site to meet the questions and needs of our workforce,” she said.
For example, TSA enhanced the voting feature on Idea Factory so that employees can rate ideas on a scale, rather than just vote up or down as before. Also, developers added an Idea Factory toolbar so that users can manage and track the ideas they want to follow.
To date, more than 13,000 TSA employees have contributed to Idea Factory, and 65,000 comments have been made on those ideas. TSA implemented more than 30 ideas raised on the site, Gaches said.
Organizations should not look at an ideas application as a way to replace surveys and face-to-face meetings but rather to enhance those other methods, said Laurent Pacalin, chief marketing officer at FICO, a company that produces credit scores.
FICO uses an ideas application to maintain a constant dialog with customers on what new features they want from products and what new services they desire.
Discussions started on the ideas site can also make face-to-face meetings more productive, Pacalin said.
“It keeps a much closer relationship between the vendor and the customers,” he said.
Another benefit of the technology is it lets people interact in a peer-to-peer environment. If someone’s idea is about a topic that has already been addressed, other customers can comment to alert him or her to that fact.
Salesforce.com’s Burton said the same principles apply in the government arena. If an agency wants input on how to revamp Social Security, for example, it can create an ideas portal focused specifically on that topic.
“They could invite that kind of direct citizen feedback on a specific issue area,” he said. “It creates real collaborative civic dialogue with the American people.”