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.

8 Ways to Democratize Experimentation: HBR Blog

My third post on the Harvard Business Review site went live today. The post was written in collaboration with H. James Wilson and is titled, 8 Ways to Democratize Experimentation. Building on our previous post on experimentation, in this post, we offer 8 tips for organizations to consider as they try to infuse experimentation as part of every employee's work.

  1. Increase managerial attention.
  2. Train employees on the basics of conducting experiments.
  3. Accept that experimentation is a messy and untidy process.
  4. Deploy organizational resources and assets to give employees the time and space to experiment with their ideas.
  5. Build a process whereby experiments can be conducted in a systematic manner.
  6. Create a platform or bulletin board.
  7. Give intrinsically motivated experimenters the same care provided to "sanctioned," large-scale experiments.
  8. Start a working papers and presentation series for both researchers and practitioners.


We would love to hear your comments on the ideas presented.

Finally, A Majority of Executives Embrace Experimentation: HBR Blog

My second post on the Harvard Business Review site went live today! The post was written in collaboration with H. James Wilson and is titled, Finally, A Majority of Executives Embrace Experimentation. The post outlines the value proposition of building an experimentation culture within organizations and how executives can support employee experimentation.

The post has been picked up by Bloomberg Businessweek as well.

We would love to hear your comments on the ideas presented.

The Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Saga: What do we Learn about Managing Superstars?

I am a footballer first and foremost, and then, an entrepreneur, academic, or whatever else you may categorize me as. Growing up, I had the privilege of playing on some good teams and had aspirations to be a great footballer (for my American readers, I am not referring to American Football, but the rather what you call Soccer). My favorite team has always been Manchester United Football Club (MUFC), and my favorite coaches have always been Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho. The recent performance by MUFC has been far from stellar. The team has lost points on matches that they should have won, and they have allowed leads to slip by, most recently against West Bromwich Albion. One of the reasons for this has been the precarious performance of their star performer, Wayne Rooney. Wayne Rooney, if you believe the press reports, has fallen out with his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex had chosen to rest his superstar for several games, claiming that his player needed time to recover from an ankle injury that he sustained last season. Soon thereafter, after national team duty with England, Rooney spoke to the press and contradicted his manager. He claimed that nothing was wrong with his ankle. Today, speculation abounds that Rooney might be ready to part ways with MUFC!

I am fascinated by these developments for several reasons, and what is surprising, even to me, is that I am excited from the perspective of organizational behavior and management, rather than as a raging Red Devil. Dealing with superstars is never an easy proposition for any manager. As one colleague put it, “I love my superstars as much as I hate managing them!” Last season, Rooney carried MUFC, scoring 34 goals, a sizable proportion of which kept MUFC in the premier league title race. However, since sustaining an injury in a match against FC Bayern Munich in the Champions League, he has never really played his best. He had an awful World Cup showing, and has been insignificant for most of the season. So, what is Sir Alex to do?

In discussing this situation with several executives, I wanted to share some food for thought. First, we need to understand that all employees will have ups and downs. Rooney is now in a slump and his performance has suffered. Sir Alex may have had the right intention in benching him (i.e. giving him a break); however, maybe a better strategy would have been to let him to play. As one executive remarked to me, “the most difficult thing for superstars is to deal with lows…the only way out is to keep at it, and then witness the positive trajectory.”

Second, Sir Alex needs to take a step back and allow the team to manage Rooney. Sir Alex is a beast of manager (now reaching 70); he is probably going to go down in history as the most decorated football manager. Rooney, on the other hand, is a kid (only 24 years old). Sir Alex needs to have a conversation with Rooney to reassure him that he is committed to seeing him blossom at MUFC. Then, he needs to enlist the support of his senior players, most notably Ryan Giggs, who is MUFC and Premier League’s most decorated player, in a coaching role. Giggs, who is closing in 40, is at the tail-end of his career and has expressed an interest in coaching. I suggest that Sir Alex mentor Giggs in the art of coaching, by giving him the ‘Rooney Project.’ No matter how good a manager that he is, innovative and star players, trust other players who they have seen deliver. They trust peers who have expertise and the necessary experience. Sir Alex has at his disposal ‘the most decorated player’ in the Premier League, who could help Rooney get out of the slump. Gigg’s playing days are numbered, but he still has a lot to contribute to the game of football, and young lads still look up to him as a role-model.

Third, in dealing with Rooney, especially his behavior on and off the pitch, Sir Alex needs to carefully consider the message that his actions will send to other players. Sir Alex has been known to have a zero-tolerance policy towards player dissent (e.g. past star players, like David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy, were shown the exit door for not abiding by their manager’s request or dissenting). On a personal level, I think Sir Alex is right to discipline players who are selfish and do not put the club before their own interests; however, in Rooney’s case, a small exception can be made, considering that he carried the club on his shoulders the previous season. Sir Alex needs to take all of this into account in making any determinations on how to proceed. One way to address this is best captured by a colleague, “superstars are individuals, and at the end, they still need a team to perform…so, if the superstar is delivering constantly that means the rest of the team is not! Eventually, the team needs to give the superstar a break and deliver on their own.” Sir Alex needs to give Rooney a break, but establish clear parameters around his behavior and professional conduct. In addition, the rest of the team needs to be scolded and shamed into increasing their level of performance so that they are a ‘team’ and not a ‘one man show.’

What do you think Sir Alex should do?

Idea Experimentation: Putting Your Ideas to the Test

Once you have advocated, screened, and funded ideas, the next step is to engage in experimentation. To experiment is to try something new. It allows you to observe the interplay between cause and effects—i.e., it is the application of scientific methods to generate actionable knowledge. Simply put, experimentation can be considered the sum of all activities we engage in to test the feasibility and elasticity of an idea. On the feasibility side, we are normally looking at the cost, benefits, effort, resources, and risks involved in transforming the idea into a viable product and/or service. In addition to feasibility, the experimentation process will also unearth the elasticity of an idea. Idea elasticity focuses on the reach of the product and/or service. Elasticity tries to see how far you can stretch ideas, both in terms of the number of products and/or services that you can develop from them, and also the domains in which you can deploy them.

It is through the process of collecting data through the conduct of experiments that we can find support for the ideas. Data collected during the experimentation process will help us gather the necessary evidence to support decision-making. Today, there is a big movement in medicine called evidence-based medicine (EBM), which demonstrates that a move towards more scientific and data-driven decision-making can prove to be valuable, rather than purely relying on gut instincts. Dr. Dave Sackett, a pioneer in the field states “EBM is saying rather than just rely on tradition, expert opinion, wishful thinking, let's try and find the evidence and apply it.” [1] To build a culture of experimentation one must focus on the following principles: 1) do not just discard ideas without adequate evidence, 2) do not support or move ideas ahead without adequate evidence, and 3) always look to exploit data from experiments.
While at Amazon from 1997-2002, Greg Linden prototyped a system that would make personal recommendations to customers as they checked out. Linden commented, “I heard the SVP was angry when he discovered I was pushing out a test. But, even for top executives, it was hard to block a test. Measurement is good. The only good argument against testing would be that the negative impact might be so severe that Amazon couldn't afford it, a difficult claim to make.” [2] Linden’s experiment showed how much the customer liked the feature and it won praise – the end result is that this has become a signature design feature for Amazon, and most online web marketers have introduced a similar concept. This illustrates the value and capabilities of organizations to test incremental ideas and achieve innovation through “continual tiny experiments in such areas as business processes and customer relationships rather than a single, company-transforming idea.” [3]

Experimentation needs to be made part of every employee’s work and has to move beyond the R&D Labs. The R&D Labs have natural constraints that leave a lot to be desired in terms of experimentation. For example, most of the R&D personnel are detached from the day-to-day running of the business and hence are not the best people to experiment on the problems and solutions of interest for today. In addition, these labs are often physically secluded from the operational centers of the business. This separation leads to difficulty when you try to transport (mobilize) ideas from the lab in order to address problems that are happening on the ground. Finally, you also have a numbers issue. The number of individuals working in an R&D lab is minimal compared to employees who are involved with the day-to-day running of the business. As such, no matter how brilliant your R&D lab personnel are, you will be at a loss if you cannot find ways to tap into the 85-90% of your organization’s employees who do not work in the lab. At the Engaged Enterprise, we had a R&D lab, the Institute for Engaged Business Research (IEBR). IEBR was focused on working on applied management problems that had value propositions to our clients. We determined upfront that simply relegating experimenting and innovation to the labs was not optimal. We needed to find a way to blend the experiences of those working on the consulting side with the R&D side. In addition, we needed to find ways to take knowledge that was being generated on the consulting side (as experiments were conducted “live” while projects were being done – i.e. as we tried to install a new service or strategize with a client – we were in essence engaging in experimentation) and move these into the R&D lab. We did this by having people share their time between consulting and R&D. Also, we had our R&D folks develop a method and handbook that could be used for experimentation which explained the basics of experimentation and how to capture and store results. We also encouraged sharing of results from experimentation efforts so that others might use the results, or provide their reflections on the experiments.

The effort to move experimentation beyond the R&D labs needs to be a conscious one. Both, organizational (management) and employee level interventions need to be in place to promote this concept. Managers should not only encourage their employees to experiment with their ideas, but even go so far as making it a requirement when ideas are being developed and proposed. In addition, employees should take responsibility to engage with the experimentation process, and be aware of methods and practices for conducting experiments.

please stay tuned for my new book or send me a note via email…

[1] Sackett, Dr. Dave. (October 30, 2009). Interviewed by André Picard. Available at:
[3] McCann, David. (March 15, 2010). Testing, Testing: The New Innovation Game. Available at: