Employees and the public are full of good ideas that agencies can tap

Reward the people who give you great ideas

Nancy Fichtner, a clerk at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Colorado, might not hold a high-ranking job or even aspire to one. But she does know how things work in her corner of the Veterans Affairs Department’s massive health care operation, and she had some ideas for how to make it better.

So when President Barack Obama wanted help in rooting out waste in the federal government, Fichtner answered his call. Her idea was simple: Let patients take partially used medical supplies, such as inhalers, with them when the hospital discharges them rather than throwing the supplies awa

Not a big idea, maybe, but not a small one either. Her suggestion was chosen as the winner from among 38,000 suggestions that Obama received in a contest last year. Fichtner got to present her plan to Obama personally.

The concept of collecting ideas from federal employees and the public is central to Obama’s open-government efforts. But to make that happen, agencies need to know how to set up and effectively use platforms for generating ideas. They also need to provide incentives that encourage people to participate.

Indeed, by March 8 — the 90-day deadline for the Open Government Directive — the Office of Management and Budget will provide specific guidance for how agencies can use challenges and prizes to find solutions to improving open government.

As agencies start implementing the Open Government Directive, they need to communicate with those who take part, said Vivek Bhaskaran, chief executive officer and co-founder of IdeaScale. “As long as people are aware of the fact that their voice actually can make change, they will participate,” he said.

IdeaScale provides an online platform that lets people submit ideas and vote and comment on others' ideas. Positive votes push ideas to the top of a ranking of the ideas. Several private organizations, such as Red Hat, Coldwater Creek and the Boy Scouts of America, which use IdeaScale to interact with customers and employees, know the secret to public interaction, Bhaskaran said: The best incentive is recognition.

“Not every voice can make a change obviously,” he said. “Maybe one of out a 1,000 ideas goes all the way to the top. If that happens, then I think the participation and excitement will be there.”

The General Services Administration offers federal agencies a free version of IdeaScale to use as a public engagement platform. Agencies that use it, Bhaskaran said, must be sure to let the public know that they are listening to their ideas.

Then again, cash and prizes work, too.

For example, VA recently launched the VA Innovation Challenge, which asks employees to submit ideas on how the department can better perform its charter. Prizes will go to winners of two categories: amount of participation and quality of ideas.

The participation awards will consist of small incentives, such as $200 gift certificates. The quality of ideas awards could potentially lead to large cash bonuses for money-saving ideas. “If someone saves the organization half a million dollars, why shouldn’t they be eligible for a $5,000 bonus?” Bhaskaran said.

In Manor, Texas (population 6,500), officials are offering prizes, such as being mayor for a day, to get people to participate in the city's ideas program.

Manor is using an ideas platform from Spigit, which was built with some gaming aspects. Besides submitting and voting on ideas, participants receive rankings based on how much they participate and what others think of their ideas. “If you want people to return, you have to give them an incentive,” said Dustin Haisler, Manor’s assistant city manager and chief information officer.

For useless or just plain bad ideas, which agencies should expect to receive, Haisler recommends dealing with them in a transparent way. When possible, share with the public specifically why an idea is not viable, he said.

But never underestimate the power of public recognition for good ideas, said Scott Anderson, Spigit’s vice president. In the corporate world, the most popular prizes are rewards such as having lunch with the chief marketing officer or getting a sandwich named after you in the company cafeteria.

A handshake with the president of the United States goes a long way, too.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.


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