Instagram started as a location check-in app called Burbn. This seemed over-complicated, though, so the founders eventually narrowed in on one of the app’s features, photography, and tested it on their users. The rest is history.
Governments are now learning these lessons from startups. After all, it’s often impossible to know how something will work out before it is trialled. As Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth.”
Officials are becoming quicker to adapt their approaches, testing out new ideas and iterating based on feedback. But how can they quickly judge what citizens want, and whether something is successful?
Here are four great ways that governments have asked for advice.
1. MyGov, India
Prime Minister Modi has led a wave of crowdsourcing initiatives since taking office in 2014. His MyGov site, for example, is a social network for Indians to take part in government.
Dedicated groups allow citizens to suggest ideas, take part in challenges, and win prizes for successfully aiding government. This includes creating tourism campaigns, and helping clean the Ganges river.
The site also asks Indians for questions and problems, which the PM addresses in a monthly radio show: “Maan Ki Baat”. Citizens can vote for their favourite questions, bringing them to greater prominence in advance of the show.
2. Agents of Open Government, Sao Paolo
Brazil’s largest city wanted to train its civil servants, but decided that traditional courses wouldn’t give them the new skills they required.
Instead, it launched its Agents of Open Government scheme, where ordinary citizens teach government instead. They can register to run courses in four subject areas: open and collaborative technology; transparency and open data; networked communication; and mapping and collaborative management.
These courses see citizens with specialist abilities giving back to the community by improving the skills of public servants.
Around 200 people applied for the first round, and of those people chosen to become citizen teachers, 42% are women and 40% are from minority backgrounds. This is a much more diverse pool than usually advises government.
3. Travel Data Challenge, USA
The US General Services Administration wanted help saving money, so it turned to citizens for advice.
The Travel Data Challenge was launched to help government make savings on travel costs. The first phase was a challenge to build an interactive tool that shows how government spends money on travel, identifying potential savings. Second, government asked for tips on missing datasets, and better methods of collection.
Usually, financial data is hidden away, but government wants to spend money better. And citizens have a vested interest – the money is theirs.
4. World Bank Skills Finder
Sometimes the best expertise is hidden in plain sight. The World Bank runs a Skills Finder site to help agencies find expertise that resides, unused, within their own institutions.
Consultation doesn’t just have to be about an open call to the public, argues Beth Noveck, Barack Obama’s Open Government advisor. Instead, it can be about targeting new voices that haven’t been previously included.
The World Bank tool lets officials’ peers vote for their expertise, endorsing them and recommending others to listen to their views. It’s a more open form of appraisal than a meeting with a manager!
The one clear lesson from all of these schemes is that it’s okay to ask for advice. Citizens and staff alike are keen to be involved in the business of government.
The trick is to try things out. Startups do, testing what works and constantly evolving according to feedback. As Winston Churchill once said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”