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. 

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.

Featured

  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group