IBM Center for the Business of Government Grant: Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology

I have received a grant from the IBM Center for the Business of Government for my research project, Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology:  Challenges and Opportunities for Federal Agencies. This project will be conducted as part of the policy informatics portfolio at the Metropolitan Institute.

Most US federal agencies have embraced President Obama's vision for 1) greater transparency, 2) increased citizen participation, and 3) greater collaboration. A critical outcome of these initiatives is the willingness of federal agencies to engage with citizens around open-data initiatives and the creation of technology for solving public policy problems - 'citizen apps.' We are witnessing an increasing proliferation of 'citizen apps', i.e. applications designed by citizens and developers to solve public policy challenges. Federal agencies are not only opening up data reservoirs, but are also incentivizing the development of citizen apps through competitions. In this research project, we propose to study citizen apps and the federal programs that fostered (incentivized) their creation.

There are many reasons why it is beneficial to involve citizens in the governance process. One, it opens up problem solving opportunities where citizens can participate. Second, it serves as a forum to increase the diversity of thought and knowledge brought to a problem. This increases the potential for innovation by engaging many minds to solve complex problems. Citizen participation leads to greater collective intelligence and hopefully more robust solutions for social issues. Third, it allows citizens to solve problems that a government agency might be challenged to address. Finally, it empowers the vision set forth by former President John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Citizen app programs normally come in two broad flavors. One set of citizen app programs are fueled by government open-data initiatives. In these cases, a government agency makes data available to the public and the public in turn responds by using this data creatively to generate technologies (the apps) that better the lives of citizens. The second set of citizen app programs is where a government agency issues a challenge or problem to the public. The public then responds by building solutions to the challenge. In this case, the government may incentivize the development of the apps through issue of recognition prizes and funding. This success of both types of citizen app programs depends on the dynamic collaboration of government agencies, app developers, and the citizenry. To date, our knowledge on what makes for successful collaboration among these three players is limited.

There are a number of design considerations that need to be addressed when building citizen app programs from the nature of incentives provided to goals of the apps, the motivations that drive citizens to create the apps, and how (and where) to deploy the apps, the involvement by the agency (e.g. staff time to interact with app developers), level and amount of data availability, and creation of problem-solving communities and forums, among others. In this research project, we will uncover design considerations that government executives need to bear in mind as they initiate citizen app programs. We will also compare and contrast citizen app programs to arrive at a set of best practices by looking at critical success factors that led to citizen app programs that were highly successful.

Our research project will thoroughly inventory and study the range of citizen apps to understand the typology of the apps, the data they use, the problems they address, the motivation of the designers, the usage by citizens, and the impact on government and governance. We propose to discover and define the inter-relations between the government agencies, the app developers, and the citizens. While our focus will be on studying citizen apps generated out of programs commissioned by the federal government, we will also look at programs started by progressive states (e.g. New York, California, etc).

The results of the final report will benefit public sector government executives, public managers, and the public-at-large in several ways: 1) it will enable government executives to avoid common pitfalls when incentivizing citizen app programs (for e.g. placing emphasis on the frontend, i.e. the creation of apps, and ignoring the more challenging aspect of ensuring that the apps are diffused into the agency's work practices or to citizens); 2) it will enable public managers to understand the landscape of citizen apps, the motivations of citizens who create them, and the factors that drive their usage; and 3) it will enable federal agencies to better engage citizens into the policy setting process through supporting technology development thereby increasing the chances of more effective solution generation for policy problems.

New Project – Examining Public Participation in ACTion Alexandria

The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech has entered into an agreement to partner with ACT for Alexandria to advance the design of citizen engagement platforms.I will lead a team of researchers who will work in collaboration with ACT for Alexandria personnel to examine public participation on the ACTion Alexandria platform. The team will look at how user interactions on the community platform can guide design choices that promote more robust forms of citizen engagement.

ACT for Alexandria is a community foundation founded in the the fall of 2004 by a small group of citizens who came together to decide how best to stimulate philanthropic giving to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in their community. The ACTion Alexandria project is a new citizen engagement platform which provides interactive tools that make it easier for residents to take a more active role in addressing community problems. ACTion Alexandria connects individuals to nonprofit organizations they want to support, but with a strictly local focus. Individuals have the opportunity to take action on behalf of nonprofits working to improve the community.

ACT for Alexandria is a prominent player in the non-profit space. We are excited to partner with them to study the dynamics of public participation in action. The ACTion platform gives us access to real world scenarios of how citizens use technology to engage each other.

This initiative will advance the work being done in Policy Informatics at the Metropolitan Institute. Designing better collaborative and participatory platforms remains a critical challenge in the public arena. We are not only interested in this project from a research point of view but also from a design and policy point of view. The Metropolitan Institute will be analyzing information on user behavior on the platform, designing experiments to test various strategies for increasing engagement on the platform, and contributing to the design of the overall platform.

Collaborating on this effort allows us the opportunity to make a difference in our community. The MI is based in Alexandria and we want to be part of the community. ACT for Alexandria provides an amazing array of services, from scholarships to leadership training. ACTion Alexandria is where the idea of community engagement meets the newest technological innovations.

See here for the press release from the Metropolitan Institute (Link)

Knowledge Risks in Organizational Networks – Journal of Strategic Information Systems

Peter Trkman (Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana) and I have a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Strategic Information Systems. The paper titled “Knowledge Risks in Organizational Networks: An Exploratory Framework”  uses a combination of knowledge-based and transaction cost theories to show how the dimension and type of knowledge risk differently impact the knowledge transfer, the whole network, and the risk mitigation options.

In a networked environment, it is essential for organizations to share knowledge among themselves if they want to achieve global objectives such as collaborative innovation and increased effectiveness and efficiency of operations. However, sharing knowledge is not risk-free. An organization might lose its competitive edge if it shares too much or certain key knowledge. In addition, an organization might suffer if its intellectual property is improperly handled by its business partners. While the literature has touted the value of knowledge sharing within networks, there is a conspicuous absence of studies examining the risks of sharing knowledge. To address this gap, we develop an exploratory framework that categorizes knowledge-sharing risks across multiple dimensions. Such a framework is a structured alternative to practice-based approach to knowledge risk management. It enables a prior identification of various kinds of knowledge risks that organizations are facing.

The use of such framework is not without its limitations. Thus, a complementary paper will be published in the same issue by Marco Marabelli and Sue Newell that presents an alternative approach to knowledge risk management based on a practice perspective of knowledge.

Just a couple of footnotes


Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters Project – The Metropolitan Institute

Maggie Cowell (Assistant Professor, Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs) and I have received a seed grant ($20,000) from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) at Virginia Tech for our project “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks.” This project will be housed at the Metropolitan Institute.

The goal of this research project is to study how citizens coalesce into responsive communities, make an impact, and then dissolve during and after a disaster. This research will bring into light locally significant disasters that do not earn national headlines and where the local community turns to their own resources to respond. Too often these local disasters and citizen responses are not studied but they are vital to deepening of our understanding of community resilience and the dynamics of citizen engagement. We will uncover the dynamics of community emergence in response to a disaster. Questions considered will include: who organizes citizens into a community, how, and why? How do they respond to the disaster? How is technology, especially social media, mobilized for community organization and relief operations? And finally, what leads to the disbanding of these communities and is there any institutional memory preserved? Consisting of a series of in-depth case studies, made up of first-person accounts and interviews together with a review of secondary sources, the research will look at three stages of a spontaneous community response: the assemblage; the action and impact; and the dissolution of the community. We will study how these emergent communities use technology creatively in the various stages of the community formation as a catalyst to overcome the lack of formal response mechanisms or response planning.

This project will provide valuable insights for citizen activists, planners, and policy makers on the functions and impacts of community response and improve our understanding of citizen engagement. Understanding the emergence, and impacts of local community response can inform the efficiency of more widespread responses. We will construct a web-based platform to share results from the research project (including video interviews with citizens, case studies, and community planning tools). In addition, the web-based platform will support networking and community building among citizens who are interested in building resilient community networks.

  • “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks,” Institute for Society, Culture and Environment @ Virginia Tech, 2011, (PI) (co-PIL Margaret M. Cowell)  ($20,000)

Building and Sustaining Agile Information Systems – Henry Stewart Talks

My presentation, Building and Sustaining Agile Information Systems, as part of the Strategic Issues in Information Technology: Challenges and Innovations series, is now available online. In this presentation, I discuss practical design guidelines for building and sustaining agile information systems and agile organizations. I focus on four key levers that need to be managed towards this end: information, knowledge, work, and technology.

Desouza, K.C. (2011), "Building and sustaining agile information systems", in Galliers, R.D.(. (ed.), Strategic Issues in Information Technology: Challenges and innovations, The Marketing & Management Collection, Henry Stewart Talks Ltd, London (online at

What is Network Resiliency?

I hope to use this post to begin a discussion on this question. Specifically, how do we define network resiliency when examining large-scale public sector networks. These networks span multiple-levels from individuals to organizations and may even involve consortiums. Consider the case of the US intelligence community (USIC). The USIC involves both public sector organizations (e.g. CIA, NSA, FBI, etc) but also collaborates with intelligence agencies in other countries (e.g. MI6, BND) and even private organizations (Xe Services LLC). The USIC must ensure that its network is resilient. Its resiliency is dependent not only how well it plans for, and executes, responses to changes in its internal and external, but also how well its network (which consists of many organizations it does not have formal control, or even influence, over) fairs in times of crises.

Today, I was examining the literature in telecommunication networks for concepts that we could draw on. The engineering literature has a myriad of concepts that we could draw on to build a framework for organizational network resiliency. For example, consider the concept of load-balancing. Load balancing is essential to the design of robust electronic networks. While its primary purpose is to allow us to plan for efficient usage of resources, load balancing also helps with managing against overload on devices. To describe the concept without getting too technical, one might conceptualize load balancing as follows: incoming information requests to a network are distributed to the appropriate device within the network by a load-balancer. The load-balancer is responsible for routing the request to the best available device (different algorithms might be used for this, and we can have different criteria for determining the best device to route a request to). Load balancing can help us design failsafe mechanisms (for e.g., if one node is down then traffic is routed to a backup node).

Should we have load-balancing mechanisms for organizational networks? Absolutely! I actually think that organizational networks do have implicit load-balancers. Some view these as gatekeepers? Gatekeepers play a vital role in determining how information moves within networks. Do you know of any organizations that manage their gatekeepers mindfully? If so, how do they do it? Also, are there other organizational concepts that are similar to load-balancing?

During my visit to the CIS @ LSE, I conducted an inquiry into how ecological models might help us understand robustness of networks, especially terrorist networks. One idea that I worked hard on is how do agents within a network adapt under conditions of duress. For example, assuming you took away a food source from an ecosystem, how might the various entities (species) adapt and create work-a-rounds? Would the nature of competition among the species change? Would the patterns that drive the reorganization of the ecosystem be predictable?

Towards Evidence-Driven Policy Design: Complex Adaptive Systems and Computational Modeling

Along with my doctoral student, Yuan Lin, I have co-authored an article that describes how we might move towards evidence-driven policy design. This article draws from the keynote that I have at the 2010 Computational Social Science Society Conference.

Efforts to design public policies for social systems tend to confront highly complex conditions which have a large number of potentially relevant factors to be considered and rapidly changing conditions where continuous adaptation delays or obscures the effect of policies. Given unresolvable uncertainty in policy outcomes, the optimal solution is difficult, if ever possible, to nail down. It is more reasonable to choose a solution that is robust to as many future scenarios that might ensue from the decision. Arriving at such a solution requires policy makers to actively explore and exploit rich information to support their decision making in a cost-efficient, yet rigorous manner. We name this new working style as evidence-driven policy design and outline the characteristics of favorable evidence. We then argue that computational modeling is a potential tool for implementing evidence-driven policy design. It helps the study and design of solutions by simulating various environments, interventions, and the processes in which certain outcomes emerge from the decisions of policy makers. It allows policy makers to observe both the intended and, equally important, unintended consequences of policy alternatives. It also facilitates communication and consensus-building among policy makers and diverse stakeholders.

Writing of a different style, fiction, or at least I hope so…Overcommitted

It is 8 AM and Sam Houston is on his way to his office in downtown Chicago. He drives from his house in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago, then catches a train into the city. During his roughly seventy-five minute train ride, he has learned to balance his laptop, notebook and pencil, his blackberry, and his triple shot frappuccino coffee. He begins his trip by reviewing his agenda for the day, thinking through his upcoming meetings, his to-do list, and the projects under his supervision.

For some reason, today Sam finally comes to the realization that he is overcommitted.  He thinks to himself, "I need to cut things off my lists!" (Good for you, Sam!) As Sam tries to think of solutions, he cannot resist the temptation of going through the mail that came in during the night. Alas, he sees that both Susan and Charlie have asked him for ‘small’ favors that would require him to be part of two different teams- one exploring strategic priorities for the organization, the other making a decision on which vendor the organization should choose for its new social media platform re-design. Sam knows that he cannot turn these opportunities down; they are both critical to his career, not to mention that he does owe both Susan and Charlie favors for their help on one of his past efforts. Sam tries to think how he might organize his tasks and prioritize his ‘big ticket’ items. As he works on his list, he hears the soundtrack of ‘We are Champions’ by Queen playing, and he rushes to silence his ringtone by answering his blackberry. His wife is calling to remind him that he has three social events on his calendar in the next two days. Reluctantly, Sam acknowledges that he had promised to attend two school events for his children and visit his in-laws for a birthday celebration. Becoming frustrated at his increasing commitments, Sam has now forgotten what he was doing before the phone call and he is also reminded that he is only two stops from Union Station. He begins to pack his stuff up, takes a moment to enjoy his now cold caffeine drink, and takes a quick glance at the headlines from the Chicago Tribune. The train makes its entry into Union Station and Sam walks briskly to the exit where he hails a cab to take him to his offices in the Merchandise Mart. As he takes the elevator up and heads into his office, he makes a mental promise to himself, "No more commitments today. No matter what, I have to say no!" Sitting in his comfy leather chair and taking a moment to enjoy the view of Lake Michigan from his office window, he is interrupted by his assistant who tells him about an emergency meeting that is being called by the CEO. Sam realizes that today may not be the right day to say no…

Can you connect with the above scenario! Unfortunately, (and yes, I do mean unfortunately) may of us can. As much as we try, we never seem to manage our ever increasing commitments. We over-commit and continuously extend ourselves. Many of us  can do this for seemingly good reasons. We want to seem helpful or we do not want to allow opportunities to slip us by.  Other times, we may have underestimated the resource and time investment that the various commitments would require of us. Commitments do come due, and troubles build as the timelines draw near. We get irritable and annoyed with ourselves and the tasks at hand. As a result, the quality of our work suffers, both in terms of the output that we deliver and the process that we employ to arrive at the output. In the final analysis, we, as individuals, suffer. Our quality of life is impacted.

If you have strategies, decision-tools, or process frameworks that you use to manage your commitments, both in terms of identifying how to decide what commitments to take on and how you manage your ongoing commitments, please share them with me... and with Sam!

P.S. My wonderful students of IMT 580 the last year brought me a fiction book. I enjoyed reading it. So, here is my first attempt at writing what I hope is fiction (based on reality, of course!)…Stay tuned for the entire book, if I ever manage to stay focused on my current commitments!

Optimizing Idea Generation for Innovation

I have spent the last few days meeting a number of executives from technology giants like Microsoft, to smaller, yet highly innovative firms, such as biomedical research institutes. During my meetings, I engaged in very interesting conversations, most of which centered around helping organizations design sustainable innovation programs. A key question that kept coming up is how organizations should get their employees to be more effective, and efficient, in generating ideas that can advance the business cause.

One challenge for organizations is directing their employees’ energy toward spaces that need ideas. Deciding whether the focus is domain-specific (perhaps limited to engineering, sales, or accounting), or cross-domain is a first step. Another option is identifying the future areas that an organization would like to enter. For example, if the organization is thinking of entering a foreign market, it should solicit ideas about entry strategies, clients to work with, and finding the markets that are ripe for investment. The ideal organization will update its focus areas on a regular basis as conditions in its internal and external environments change. Of A.G. Laughley’s leadership at Proctor & Gamble, Tim Brown comments “He seems to see his role as constantly reminding teams of what they should be focusing on, rather than telling them whether they've got the right idea or not.”[1]

In addition, the organization should appoint key personnel to govern the ideas being generated in each area. These individuals can serve the role of contact points for employees who would like to submit ideas. They can also champion the focus areas and develop specific guidelines on how to submit ideas, specify what kinds of ideas are needed, and determine how ideas will be evaluated when submitted. The contact personnel is also important in transferring ideas between domains.  An idea submitted to one focus area may be more suitable for another one. In addition, there might be opportunities that are submitted in one domain which should be pursued as cross-domain collaborations. For example, CEMEX, the highly innovative cement manufacturer, has an Innovation committee composed of three directors, three VP’s, and one outside consultant. The team is responsible for defining the broad themes for innovation and structure for the innovation process.  Often, the committee considers strategic areas that are outside of the core product; recent focus areas included “integrated construction solutions for affordable housing, ways to support regional development, and making it easier for customers to do business with CEMEX.”[2]

Once focus areas are defined, it is equally important to communicate them to employees and inform employees across the hierarchical levels and functional divisions that they may contribute to these focus areas. It should be clear to employees that the work they do on a daily basis is related to at least one of the focus areas. Some organizations erroneously think that their mission statements are the best guide to how employees should focus their idea-creating. But if you asked a sample of employees in your organization to repeat the mission statement, by my estimates, less than15% would be able to give you a half-baked recital. Most employees do not see the relevance of these glorified statements as they have not been translated into terms that matter to their daily work. One useful strategy that I have seen work is to build archetypes that resonate with employees of what an idea contribution might look like in each of the focus areas.

To learn more about how to design innovation programs at your organization, or to optimize your current innovation processes, please send me an email.

[1] Brown, T. (2009, October 24). Corner Office: He Prizes Questions More Than Answers. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from Interview by Adam Bryant of NYTimes:

[2] Sull, D. N., Ruelas-Gossi, A., & Escobari, M. (2004, January 26). What Developing-World Companies Teach Us About Innovation. Retrieved March 2010, 22, from HBS Working Knowledge: