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Government Can’t Do It All, But the Public Can Help

Rena Schild/

Government cannot tackle all of the nation’s problems, and it recognizes the need for more help. More agencies should consider an appeal to the public -- an approach that leverages citizen problem-solvers. It’s a promising innovative practice that some in government are just starting to embrace.

During a Dun & Bradstreet-sponsored Techathon last fall, some agencies came seeking public help for government problems. A contingent from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for example, was there to reach out to the public in looking for new ways to combat fraudulent claims.

The federal government has it hard. It can’t always marshal the best contractors or staff, partly due to overly complex acquisition regulations and restrictive hiring practices. And now agencies have lost resources to sequestration. Civil servants are feeling the stress.

Reforming acquisition and hiring practices will take time and will be tough. In the meantime, federal managers must meet agency and cross-agency goals in 2014. A more immediate solution would be to engage the general public and the private sector to help in a more systematic way.   

One area ripe for public help is managing big data. Large volumes of unstructured and structured data, from census surveys to unemployment figures to social media hits, are hard to process partly due to their size and variety. Collaborating on analysis is key.

During last fall's Techathon, volunteer application developers gave up a sunny weekend to develop socially useful apps for agencies like the Health and Human Services Department. It was not just the $30,000 in prize money that attracted developers. It was also the fun of it and the chance to do good works. 

Businesses and research institutions understand the potential here. People want to be good and do good. By tapping into so many people with different talents and insights and by fostering collaborations among disparate groups, we can devise better policy solutions and approaches than we could by limiting the work to those locked away in offices. More data sets can be better leveraged in a potential win-win for the organization and for society.

That’s part of the thinking behind the White House Big Data Initiative, launched in 2012. The initiative has kick-started dozens of public-private partnerships to take data to knowledge to action with modest funding.  It piggy backs on the Open Data Initiative, which has challenged some agencies.

Some accomplishments of the collaborations thus far include dramatic reductions in the cost of processing genome data. Initiatives offer research institutions sustained longer-term engagement and support public participation through conduits like Zooniverse, in which citizen scientists can classify data, or DataKind, whose New York event linked organizations and tech developers for a productive 48 hours.

But we need an intermediate model of engagement as well -- one in which the public’s talents can be applied more systematically over a sustained period to solve societal problems, including those of government. This would involve less august groups than the current federal advisory committees, which are formal and elite bodies. It would also involve more than the tech-focused platform where the software-savvy engage to help government agencies with specific tasks.

Help in simply defining agency problems is needed -- including support from planners, risk analysts, engineers and functional specialists. Help in directly doing some of the work of government is also needed, like pilot testing websites.

Federal organizations can present problems to the public, beyond software challenges, and can devise innovative models for supportive communities to help agencies meet goals. This is starting to happen. There are Senior Medicare Patrols to fight fraud, Peer to Patent volunteers to help assess patent applications and various Defense Department initiatives. But the effort needs strong leadership and imagination as well as some initial investment to encourage more agency participation and broader public outreach -- as well as a way to evaluate outcomes. The General Services Administration, which oversees the federal advisory committees and, could assist agencies by supporting this effort and helping to identify best practices for effective, efficient models of outreach.  

Americans like to volunteer with everything from serving holiday meals to the homeless to setting up websites for nonprofits. About 65 million Americans volunteer each year. Why not direct more of that help directly to government? How much better could the Affordable Care Act website have been if HHS had crowdsourced the functional requirements for and piloted it publicly?

Debra Decker is a senior adviser for the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank in Washington.

(Image via Rena Schild/

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