The 3 phases of citizen idea platforms

By Dustin Haisler, Manor, and Margarita Quihuis, Researcher at Stanford University Persuasive Technology Lab

The open government movement has spurred lots of interest in agencies becoming more transparent to citizens. As a result, most federal agencies have launched “open” pages that allow anyone to submit ideas for their agencies.

While we laud these efforts as a good first step, there is more that needs to be done in order for these initiatives to reach their full potential.

Many of these agencies have focused on soliciting ideas from the public; what has yet to be revealed is how these ideas are transformed into implemented solutions. Our four-month experiment with Manor Labs has given us a number of insights on how the process could work, challenges and potential pitfalls.


Manor Labs began as collaboration between Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab and the City of Manor to explore how persuasive technologies, open innovation and transparency could be used to create new solutions to pressing community problems through citizen participation. We looked to models such as WikiPedia and Mozilla Foundation where a core institution leveraged the contributions of thousands of individuals to create something larger and more powerful than could be created by a small group alone. Small municipalities like Manor are increasingly challenged to provide services to growing populations while maintaining a small city staff and even smaller budget. With no way to increase head count or raise taxes to pay for services, we needed to find a way to tap into the collective intelligence of the citizenry to help us identify issues, propose ideas, do the necessary research and help prioritize what gets done in a dynamic manner where citizens feel heard.

Through our research at Stanford, we knew that the one of the most effective platforms that keeps people engaged are massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). MMOGs provide a clear narrative, feedback mechanisms, rules, roles and transparency. In contrast, many civic interactions lacked feedback mechanisms, clear rules of engagement or transparency. In fact, the lack of these attributes tended to feed citizen cynicism in the civic process. As a result, the type of platform we chose became very important in setting up the proper environment for citizen engagement. Most importantly the process needed to be visible – how an idea moves from a mere suggestion to a full implementation as well as being able to see who contributed, who’s dominating the conversation and so on.

Moving From Ideas to Solutions

Based upon our experience with Manor Labs, we’ve identified some key phases necessary to go from ideas to solutions.

Ideally, innovation platforms need to have three distinct phases:

  • Participation
  • Engagement
  • Implementation

Phase 1: Participation (Where Ideas Are Born)

What is participation?

  • To take part, to involve oneself, in an initiative.

What does it involve?

  • Submitting An Idea


  • Getting initial involvement

How do you get citizens involved?

  • Identify motivation – hot button issues in local community
  • Actively Recruit – social media outreach (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) plus traditional channels – local newspapers, community groups
  • Messaging – frame it as an opportunity for citizens to be more active with their government

What Can Go Wrong?

  • Insufficient participation
  • Politics can corrode the effectiveness of a platform
  • Lack of moderation/quality screening of ideas, platform overtaken by spam


  • Citizens signing up as their authentic selves (Open ID, Facebook Connect, etc.)
  • How do you discourage citizens from creating multiple accounts with the appearance of being different people with the purpose of gaming the system?

Success Metrics:

  • How many ideas should you expect?
  • What level of citizen participation is reasonable?

Phase 2: Engagement (Where Ideas Grow)

What is engagement?

  • The act of sharing in the activities of a group

What does it involve?

  • Growing An Idea (Collaboration, Knowledge Sharing, Research, Development, Piloting)


  • Who is going to grow the idea? Crowd or Government?
  • Effective moderation of ideas to keep conversations on topic, filter out spammers
  • Well written and understood Community guidelines
  • Clear roles
  • Well designed feedback loops
  • Getting people to return to the platform on a regular basis

What Can Go Wrong?

  • Failing to keep citizens in the loop
  • No feedback/progress report on how ideas are moving through system
  • Poor rules – people gaming the system

Tools To Use:

  • Engagement Loops/Feedback Mechanisms
  • Game Mechanics – Participation points for collaboration, quality of ideas, leaderboards

How To Measure Success:

  • Number and quality of comments/idea
  • Are groups of people regularly building on each others’ ideas?
  • Number of reoccurring participants

Phase 3: Implementation (Where Ideas Become Solutions)

What does it involve?

  • Validating idea (Does it really address a problem)
  • Determining resources and budget
  • Should idea be implemented by government or by community (grassroots, neighborhood, volunteer, non-profit?)
  • Feedback to idea participants on implementation

What Can Go Wrong?

  • Government employees not on board
  • “Not-Invented Here” syndrome
  • Corrosive Politics

How To Measure Success:

  • What is the ratio of ideas to implemented solutions?
  • ROI? Cost savings?
  • Quality/Quantity of ideas of solutions?


  • The platform can set the stage for the process and expected engagement
  • Rules, roles and feedback (what type, how often) need to be thought through in advance
  • Breakdown the process into simple, clear steps
  • Don’t overlook civil servant buy-in and participation (Show/demonstrate value)
  • Start small (pilot it in one department and grow from there)
  • The goal is to channel citizen participation into constructive, productive re-engagement where they feel they co-created and co-own outcomes

Over the next few weeks we will take look a closer at each phase of innovation.


About Dustin Haisler

Dustin Haisler is Director of Government Innovation at Spigit. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @dustinhaisler.

4 Responses

  1. Hi Dustin – nice post !

    You may want to take a look at Citizen DAN an open source Community Indicators System (CIS) platform for cities and networks of communities.

    In addition we have a current proposal into a major city via a very well partner organization that champions sustainable development.

    Ping me if you’re interested in wanting to know more.

    – Steve


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