Manor Labs

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.


Does gaming have a place in government?

Part of our research focus at Manor Labs is to discover new ways of communicating and engaging the public. The following two concepts came out of that research.

The new form of social network-based online gaming has become all the rage on popular social networking sites. From a government standpoint, we have determined that these platforms are distractions and subsequently block them from use by our employees. However, let’s propose a new thought; what if we used these tools to educate and engage our public?

Here are two concepts for using game mechanics proactively within government:


The first concept takes Zynga’s FarmVille game model to an entirely new level—the government. We could create an online game with the simplicity of FarmVille, but the mechanics of a real city. There’s currently a social network game called MyTown that is similar to this model, however, it doesn’t accurately encompass concepts like taxation and cost of service within the game model (but it’s a great start). If the government built on their example, we could create a more empowered and educated citizen base.

Let’s say we built an online game that was as engaging as FarmVille, but incorporated real governmental concepts in the process. Which concepts are important to start with?

  • Taxation: Have the gamer adjust taxes but also have it tied to public opinion (similar to Sim City, but less complex).
  • Cost of Service: Have responding to police calls, water line breaks, etc., demonstrate a cost of service for government.

After you establish a sizable base of game players, you could increase the difficulty of the game by incorporating “real” crowdsourced governmental elements within the game model.

For example, Manor Labs is always looking for new ways to get people to review ideas using very simple metric that takes less than 30 seconds to complete. Incorporating this element as a challenge within an online game would allow participants to not only advance within the game, but also help our agency out in the process.

This game concept could be expanded as not only as a new way to teach individuals about government, but as a new way to learn from them.

The second idea I had was to use the Foursquare model of mobile engagement and apply it to government.

About Foursquare:

“Foursquare aims to encourage people to explore their neighborhoods and then reward people for doing so. We do this by combining our friend-finder and social city guide elements with game mechanics – our users earn points, win mayorships and unlock badges for trying new places and revisiting old favorites.”

Building on that model, each agency could allow citizens to “check-in” at various city spots (Library, Fire Station, etc.) and learn more about their community in a fun and engaging format. This could also help open up the door for their participating in other crowdsourced programs like SeeClickFix.


In our ever changing society, civic participation and engagement are becoming more and more difficult to achieve. I believe these elements are more obtainable by incorporating certain elements of game mechanics in the process. These ideas are just two examples of how such mechanics can be utilized to create a more empowered and educated citizen-base.

How to pick a citizen idea platform

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

Today, more than ever, there has been lots of talk about open innovation, idea collection, ideation and many other terms used to describe the collection of citizen feedback. Most idea collection platforms have been lumped together and only compared on the basis of price alone. Based upon our research at Manor Labs, in collaboration with the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, we have come to the conclusion that there are two distinctly different platforms for idea collection.

Specific-Task Motivated Idea Platforms

These platforms (like Ideascale, Uservoice, etc.) are great a gathering ideas for a specific purpose. For instance, many online voting challenges have adopted these platforms to gather votes for a set period of time. After a user expends their vote or votes they are no longer motivated to return to the platform aside from seeing what ideas are on top.

  • Pros: Less Expensive Upfront Cost/ Great For Small Scale Challenges & Polls
  • Cons: Poor Idea Management / Poor Analytics

How Manor Uses: We currently employee a specific-task motivated platform for our website error pages. The voting mechanism is built into our standard error page (e404) so that if someone receives an error trying to access content on our website, they have the ability to make a suggestion at the point of failure, thus embracing specific-task motivated idea collection.

How Uses: Manor and Stanford’s Persuasive Technology team have teamed up to create, a public-facing idea generation platform. We chose IdeaScale to run the back-end because of its Web 2.0 characteristics such as single sign-ons via Facebook Connect and Open ID logins and extreme ease of use. In this particular implementation, the ideas are broken out into different categories but the focus is on Haiti disaster relief and recovery. In this kind of idea crowdsourcing where people are primed and motivated to help for altruistic reasons, elaborate game mechanics and reward systems such as found on platforms like Spigit aren’t necessary. One area where IdeaScale could improve is to allow idea contributors to auto-post to their Facebook Wall and Twitter accounts to provide social proof of their activities and thus persuade friends in their social networks to participate as well.

Structured-Idea Collection Platforms

This type of platform (like Spigit) collects and manages ideas on a board scale within multiple departments of an agency. Unlike the Specific-Task Motivated Platforms, users are free to submit ideas at any time within multiple departments. Since users are not motivated by specific-tasks, they must be motivated by a game-mechanics (ranking & rewarding of actions). In this type of platform, ideas are driven by the participants through an idea funnel.

  • Pros: Broad Idea Collection / Great Idea Management & Analytics / Less Expensive Over
  • Cons: More Expensive Upfront Costs

How Manor Uses: We currently use this platform to manage internal and external idea collection for our agency. Participants are ranked and rewarded for their participation in the platform, which provides the needed motivation to make the platform sustainable (leaderboard below). Users receive “Innobucks” for different elements of participation, such as idea submission, voting, commenting, etc. These “Innobucks” can be traded in for products or honors that offer participant a tangible benefit to participating. This mechanism of reward is vital to the sustainability of idea collection over extended periods of time.


Both platforms are great; however, focused toward corporate and internal audiences. The user interface and engagement mechanisms are sorely lacking for public-facing innovation. In the future we hope that these platforms will incorporate elements that are as engaging and persuasive as Facebook or many of the social games produced by Zynga. In the future, ideation platforms will need to have a much more social and game feel to them in order to get wide public participation. Indeed, future platforms may be built on top of Facebook because that’s where the public is. Likewise we can imagine Zynga created a new game called Cityville (ala Farmville, etc) where part of the play is ideation.

We’re at the very beginning of open innovation – comparable to where social networks were 10 years ago. There were many attempts – 6 Degrees of Separation, Ryze, Multiply, and Friendster before we began to see breakthrough applications like MySpace and then the dominant player Facebook.

Although there is significant progress to be made with open innovation in government, there are great tools currently out there for agencies to experiment and incorporation within their internal and external innovation processes. The benefits and insights gained from using these tools can only accelerate everyone’s learning curve on what works.

Whiteboard Innovation: How Manor Ideas Become Solutions

The City of Manor’s open innovation portal, Manor Labs, has been live for a few months turning ideas into solutions. When talking with other cities, I find that the entire concept of open innovation is a bit misunderstood. It is very easy to put up a voting platform to rate ideas, but what happens afterwards? With Manor Labs, powered by the Spigit open innovation engine, the system is user-driven and self-sufficient. This allows our small agency the ability to process large quantities of ideas with limit staff involvement.

Here’s a breakdown of idea stages and functions:

1. Incubation: When an idea is submitted it falls into this stage until it meets the required voting, page view and buzz needed to advance to the next stage.

2. Validation: Ideas that meet voting, page view and buzz requirements automatically fall into this stage. In this stage, a department head will submit a review each idea, and based upon the combination of citizen and departmental feedback, the idea may drop into the next category. If department decides that the idea does not contain enough information to proceed, they can move the idea back to incubation stage and request more information before proceeding.

3. Emergence: In this stage, ideas are reviewed by the Manor Innovation Team (MIT), which is composed of all city department heads. The team reviews each idea on a series of metrics and determine whether to implement or abort the idea. Ideas can also be piloted from this stage before they are fully implemented.

4. Closed: Ideas that fall into this stage are either implemented or aborted. If they are implemented, the idea creator is awarded and more information about how to use or signup for the new solution is posted online. If the idea is aborted, the idea creator receives an open response with reasoning why the idea cannot be implemented.

For more information about Manor Labs or to signup for an account to participate, please visit

Manor reaches The White House

The White House The City of Manor’s open innovation platform, Manor Labs, is featured on the White House’s Open Government Initiative blog (Open Government Laboratories of Democracy).

Innovation is possible even in small cities with very small budgets. I hope that we can work with more cities to innovate new solutions for the public-sector.


Just as the federal government is using online brainstorming with government employees and the public to generate ideas for saving money or going green, state and local governments are also using new technology to tap people’s intelligence and expertise. The City of Manor, Texas (pop. 5800) has launched “Manor Labs,” an innovation marketplace for improving city services. A participant can sign up to suggest “ideas and solutions” for the police department, the municipal court, and everything in between. Each participant’s suggestion is ranked and rewarded with “innobucks.” These points can be redeemed for prizes: a million points wins “mayor for the day” while 400,000 points can be traded for a ride-along with the Chief of Police.

Manor is also one of the few cities currently using bar codes (known as QR or Quick Response Codes) to label physical locations around town. These bar codes can be scanned with a mobile phone to communicate historical and touristic information, data about the cost of a municipal services, or emergency management information. Manor is experimenting with techniques for providing different information to different audiences. If a resident scans a QR code outside a home for sale, she gets the floor plan and purchase price; the building inspector sees the inspection history; and the policy officer receives information about the current occupant.

You can keep up with the City of Manor’s innovative efforts at the new Manor 2.0 GovFresh page.

Manor 2.0 documents ‘Live Government Innovation From Small-Town Texas’

We’re excited to announce Manor 2.0: Live Government Innovation From Small-Town Texas, a City of Manor, TX, and GovFresh collaboration.

Manor 2.0 will document our Gov 2.0 efforts, including our innovation initiative, Manor Labs. Our goal is to share, collaborate and connect with local governments like ours who want to leverage innovative technologies to better serve its citizens.

Tune in to and join us on our Gov 2.0 journey.