5-minute citizen engagement plan

Agencies need to have more fun with their data

Ben Huh is an expert on audience engagement who's best known for creating a platform where people can post photos of cute cats and funny captions.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with the government and information technology, don’t worry — until recently, I didn’t understand either. But as I’ve spent time thinking about what citizen engagement means, I’ve become convinced that Huh might be on to something.

Huh’s company is named Cheezburger Networks, and its goal is to “make people happy for five minutes a day.” Not only does its Web sites have more than 11 million monthly visitors and more than 10,000 daily submissions, the commentary level in some cases rivals the number of votes cast in congressional elections. People undeniably enjoy participating because it’s fun and engaging.

So why doesn’t a federal agency have the informal goal of, say, “helping students learn for five minutes a day” or “teaching Americans about foreign policy for five minutes a day” by creating something equally fun and engaging?

Cheezburger Networks makes participation simple. There is a low barrier to entry for participation on its sites, and indeed, when prompted at a question-and-answer session held recently at Google's Washington offices, Huh suggested that combining participation with humor could make the government more engaging. However, there’s definitely resistance to that idea.

When chatting with another attendee immediately after the event, I received feedback to the effect of “that’s not the government’s job.” What, being interesting? I’d like someone to show me the rule that says the government can’t use some engaging, tasteful humor to engage citizens and, in the process, convey information. The Forest Service still has SmokeyBear.com, after all.

True, a Web site like ICanHasCheezburger.com might be too far outside the box for the government. But what about another popular Cheezburger Networks site, GraphJam.com? GraphJam is a fascinating Web site that consists entirely of user-generated graphs like you’d make using data in Microsoft Excel — except they’re hilarious. The site lets you upload your own files and even has a proprietary chart builder for pie charts, Venn diagrams and so forth. Some graphs certainly take liberties with the facts, but they’re primarily fun and informative.

The government has so much data that it often can’t see novel applications for it. Engaging Web sites where people could create simple visual interpretations of government data and submit them for others to learn from, discuss and, yes, even be amused would be valuable. Why does all government data have to be treated so seriously? Does portraying it in a boring fashion somehow make it seem more important?

The key to building big, fun communities that can accomplish something useful is making it simple to belong and get involved. Narrowing the number of variables involved in the decision process to initially getting involved is critical to drawing people in. I wonder what people could collectively accomplish if they voluntarily engaged with government data for five minutes a day.

About the Author

Mark Drapeau is director of public-sector social engagement at Microsoft. 

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