White House: Technology Key To Collaborative Government


First, government must ask the right questions, she said.

"If we simply ask people for feedback and nothing more, we'll get exactly what we ask for: undifferentiated, mass-level input, none of it particularly useful," she said.

The key is to design systems that do more than ask for feedback and instead seek input of new ideas. "When we design systems that only ask how you feel, they only cost money and do not improve practices," she said.

The second principle is to ask the right people, Noveck said.

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"Create opportunities for the right people to participate. Not just the experts we know, but the experts we don't know," she said.

Several organizations have developed innovative portals where they can invite knowledgeable users who can volunteer their input and provide valuable feedback. For example, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, which has a backlog of 1 million patent applications, has invited outside experts to help the office figure out which applications should receive patents.

"The system is defined so you can flag abuse or spam, and we've had no instances of that," she said.

Third, you need to design the process to achieve your desired end result.

Noveck noted that during a presidential debate, people were invited to ask questions, but only five were selected out of 25,000, a weaker process. A better solution was to take a smaller number of questions and have users rank them by importance. "That system allows you to solicit information in a meaningful way," she said. She said the government needs to do a better job of organizing and filtering feedback it gets from constituents, something that technology can help improve. "A number of agencies solicit suggestions from all over the country. It's one thing to build a Web site, it's another to create a policy to route that information at the right place and ensure feedback for the right idea. One of the difficulties of the [Obama] campaign was to manage all the feedback," Noveck said. "As we begin to see more proliferation towards mechanisms, the ability to make them into policies is quite key." A final principle is to focus on the outcomes, and not the inputs, she said.

"We spend too much time focusing on how much is spent on a project, what is spent on a particular IT system, how many features are there on a given Web site, how many people have a blog," she said. As an example, she cited an urban planning project to redesign a municipal park. The agency involved used Second Life to generate feedback, which resulted in valuable data, she said.

"It's about rethinking the process, how are you thinking about transparency, participation and collaboration," she said. "Create the opportunities for engagement that allow people to participate in government. Invite people to participate. A lot of times you can create unexpected value, often at little or no extra cost. We spend way too much time on slapping 'give us your feedback' e-mails with no place to go. That's no way to catalyze the good ideas that come in."