Citizens as Civic Innovators

Innovation in government is increasingly coming as a result of citizens’ offering their own time and expertise. “Citizen engagement” has been touted by President Obama as one of his signature initiatives.  But what does it mean in practice and how might it change government as we know it?

A new report by the IBM Center for The Business of Government documents that 21st century citizens are performing a new role as they engage with their government at all levels – they are becoming innovators.  The study’s authors, University of Wisconsin professors Satish and Priya Nambisan, say that a trifecta of austerity, complexity, and digital technology has created this new opportunity for everyday citizens to help “co-create” new solutions for solving civic problems in their communities.

The term “co-creation” refers to the development of new public services by citizens in partnership with government. The authors outline four roles that citizen co-creators often assume: explorer, ideator, designer, and diffuser.  According to the authors:

“As explorer, citizens can identify, discover, and define emerging and existing problems in public services. For example, the New York-based Datakind initiative involves citizen volunteers using their data analysis skills to mine public data in health, education, environ­ment, and more areas to identify important civic issues and problems.

“As ideator, citizens can conceptualize novel solutions to well-defined problems in public services. For example, initiatives such as federal government’s and OpenIDEO employ online contests and competitions to solicit innovative ideas to solve important civic problems.

“As designer, citizens can design and/or develop implementable solutions to well-defined problems in public services. For example, as part of initiatives such as NYC Big Apps and Apps for Californians, citizens have designed mobile apps to address specific issues such as public parking availability, public transport delays, and more.

“As diffuser, citizens can directly support or facilitate the adoption and diffusion of public service innovations and solutions among well-defined target populations. For example, physicians interacting with peers in dedicated online communities have assisted govern­ment agencies in diffusing health technology innovations.”

“These four citizen roles imply different types of contributions in civic problem solving, different types of government-citizen interactions and thereby the need for different types of mechanisms and support infrastructure,” the authors observe.

The report also explores a wide range of mechanisms for citizen co-creation, such as the use of new technologies such as mobile apps, contests, serious gaming, and data mashups.  Taken together, these mechanisms offer less expensive problem-solving techniques than were ever available in the past.

How to get started?  Public officials, universities, or non-profits need to provide two key elements for a successful support infrastructure to host citizen co-creation activities:

First, create an innovation ecosystem: an organizing structure for a wide range of citizens, government employees, and non-profits to come together as a community to promote a shared view, and define the rules of the game for coordinated collaboration activities.

And second, create an innovation platform: a physical or virtual place to work together, such as a modular problem-solving process, and ways to share knowledge and interaction among all participants.

Why is civic innovation finally catching on? 

Academics and others have been talking about this concept for several decades.  The tipping point may be that political leaders are more willing and open to substantive citizen engagement because they are being conditioned by the give-and-take dynamics created by social media.  The new technologies reach far beyond the traditional testify-and-comment approaches to citizen engagement of the past. 

In the past few years, social media technology has changed the way that government officials interact with citizens, and now, engaged citizens are using new technology and innovation to change the way they interact with their government.