Tips for crowdsourcing, from the crowd

On the heels of the first anniversary of, a report has gathered the best practices from the government crowdsourcing project that other agencies can use to improve or create their own efforts.

The American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council on Oct. 5 announced the findings of a survey that gathers input and lessons learned from federal agencies that have used Launched Sept. 7, 2010 the online tool allows agencies to post challenges or contests in an effort to spur citizen involvement and with the public's help find innovative and cost-effective ways to solve pressing issues.

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Challenges are split up in categories such as science/technology, defense and health, and range from creating an app to help improve heart health to raising awareness about distracted driving. Many of the challenges also have “prizes” -- monetary incentives for the winning solutions.

To improve the odds of having a successful challenge, federal agencies should first consider their target audience, the report states. What are the audience's expectations? How will the workload impact its ability to participate? Are there timetables that would affect participation?

“One thing we heard over and over again was, ‘Know your audience,’” said Mark Samblanet, vice chair of ACT-IAC’s Collaboration and Transformation Shared Interest Group. “Go to where they meet to get the word out. You’re trying to reach John Q Public or the small businesses that have never worked with the federal government but have some really great, bright innovative ideas.”

It’s also important for agencies to pick the right judges for the challenges and give them “nice, simple requirements” on how they are going to judge the participants’ submissions in their various formats, Samblanet said.

“One thing that you don’t know with a challenge is how many people are going to respond,” he added. “It could be 30 or 30,000. One [agency] had planned to have 30 participants and got 300. Some might do a 3-minute video, some might do a poster. Judges need to know how they’re going to judge.” 

Another key aspect for agencies to consider is to avoid complicating things, Samblanet said .

“Don’t make it too complex because people will walk away,” he said. With the hundreds of challenges posted on, agencies can explore the formats other departments have used to get participants to sign up, Samblanet said.

In talking to agencies that had participated in the project, Samblanet said the No. 1 hurdle was the legal aspect of putting a challenge together.

“Without a doubt, the largest roadblock that they run into is with the legal folks and legal contracts,” he said, adding that agencies have to consider the procurement laws and rules, various acts on paperwork reduction and privacy, and the process of gathering information, among many other things.

“The federal government, unlike the commercial sector, has laws that protect citizens,” Samblanet said. “And when the government wants to reach those citizens, it has to do so within the confines of the laws that apply.”

There is “absolutely an increased interest” for agencies to participate, not so much in the traditional contracting sense but more in the way of getting new ideas, Samblanet said. And with the ease and low cost of participating, more agencies will realize the benefits and want to take advantage of

“One of the problems the federal government has is that it’s very easy to get stuck in the bureaucracy, he said. “With the ability to do challenges -- and especially when you talk about things like public announcements -- you’re actually talking to your audience and the audience is speaking” back. 


About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Mon, Oct 10, 2011 Janelle

Thank you for this insightful piece! I would also reference campaigns being done by the Dept of State and City of San Francisco powered by Brightidea’s social innovation management software- some great resources, including video, are here and a radio broadcast of the Dept of State's efforts

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