Bright Ideas, Dim Prospects

The old-fashioned suggestion box won't spark real change unless agencies follow through.

With the elections behind them, newly installed public officials are focused on staying in tune with constituents, delivering on promises and tackling the many challenges the nation faces.

To build consensus-and attempt to grasp the diverse opinions of constituents-government leaders and organizations have been turning to the old-fashioned suggestion box, albeit in an electronic way. This significant trend began when President Obama took office, and it became a mainstay during 2010. His Open Government Initiative set out to create "an unprecedented level of openness in government," compelling federal agencies to become more transparent, participatory and collaborative by asking the public for ideas and suggestions.

Obama launched his own suggestion box, asking for feedback on how to cut government expenses and improve efficiency and effectiveness. Agencies such as the Homeland Security Department followed suit, striving to be more collaborative with constituents.

But many suggestion boxes, especially in this day and age, don't work-at least not on a scale broad enough to solve complex issues. As central repositories, suggestion boxes by nature are not truly collaborative, and they offer no process to see an idea through to its final execution.

Interestingly, a recent study by Accept Corp., a management consulting firm, found that 75 percent of organizations collect feedback in an archaic fashion, often in random one-on-one interactions. As a result, less than 50 percent of ideas actually are generated by key constituents and influencers.

Many ideas end up in a proverbial black hole, devoid of feedback for the individual who posted it, or a mechanism to demonstrate that the idea was actually received, vetted and either dismissed or considered. The real challenge is identifying meaningful advice and zeroing in on the best feedback so the most workable ideas get priority.

In 2010, Homeland Security launched an online tool to collect ideas from the public on its open government plan. The goal was to determine how the department could increase transparency, foster a culture of participation and increase collaboration. A quick visit to the site shows that a number of ideas were collected, some more popular than others. But there was no clear sequence, next step, or feedback to participants indicating how the ideas were received and what will happen as a result.

While there are some interesting ideas contained on the site-some even could be useful-many are akin to rants from dissatisfied individuals using the site as a way to voice their opinions rather than to offer sincere suggestions that form the basis for real change.

The old-fashioned suggestion box is a cumbersome, slow, resource-intensive form of generating ideas that begets submissions instead of meaningful collaboration that actually results in a better product, service or innovation. Less than 10 percent of ideas submitted in any forum are even remotely viable. Similarly, many of the ideas submitted through government suggestion boxes are merely complaints or viewpoints not likely to lead to anything productive.

Suggestion boxes are generally one-sided. The process is a one-way communication that ultimately alienates the people who submit ideas. They often have no clue what happens to their proposal, which discourages further input and leaves submitters that much more frustrated about the original problem.

The suggestion process requires conversation and collaboration. In business, 50 percent of research and development investment will never generate revenue. The other 50 percent returns only three to eight times the investment during an average of five years, according to the management consultants PRTM. Suggestion boxes lack integrated processes and a platform for managing ideas from conception to execution. Proper platforms not only encourage more thoughtful submission, they also make better use of the information in improving government.

The accumulated total public debt of the United States is some $14 trillion, or about 94 percent of annual gross domestic product. When it comes to good ideas for cost cutting in government, we don't have the luxury of time. For a suggestion box to accomplish its intended goal, it must be interactive. It will have to offer contributors a way to communicate and a mechanism for ranking ideas so that what's viable floats to the top and officials can build on the best concepts. Only then will a suggestion box make a difference in addressing significant problems.

Managing the chaos of seeking, sorting and selecting the right ideas to influence government policy and operations represents only the front end of the collaboration process. The larger event is a high-intensity, high-transparency conversation among constituents and policymakers and agency leaders designed to help everyone share opinions on what they're doing, how they're doing it and why.

But there's much more involved. The second phase is to prioritize the ideas that constituents have submitted, discussed and voted on; the surviving ones then can move to the planning stage. It requires government officials to analyze the potential fit of each idea within the current political and management environment, as well as the direction of initiatives.

To do this effectively, ideas must be scored in several critical ways. One is to prioritize each suggestion by weighted factors, among them its development cost, the frequency with which it was requested and the value of that idea in the context of opinions of other key constituents. After all, if government is to serve its people, then officials need to hear constituents clearly.

In this collaborative process, it is critical to capture, manage, orchestrate and relay feedback during an idea's implementation so contributors can see what has happened to their suggestions. Then they can feel they have played an active role in improving their government.

Christine Crandell is the senior vice president of marketing at Accept Corp., a consulting firm that helps companies and government organizations streamline the innovation process.

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