How Manor, Texas, could help your federal agency

Tuesday - 6/1/2010, 3:51pm EDT

Dustin Haisler, Assistant City Manager and Chief Information Officer, and Phil Tate, City Manager, Manor, Texas

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We talk a lot about making Gov 2.0 work at the federal government level, but some smaller governments are already making the technology work for them.

Manor, Texas, is near Austin and has been using crowdsourcing to come up with ideas about how to improve life there.

Dustin Haisler is the Assistant City Manager and Chief Information Officer for Manor and explains, first and foremost, that they're using Quick Response (QR) bar codes that can be read with a cell phone to be more transparent about where tax dollars are going.

"It's a great technology. It's an old technology used overseas quite heavily. It's used in marketing now in the States, but we decided it would be a great citizen engagement tool," he says.

In order to engage citizens, city officials attached the QR codes to different signs describing projects all over the place.

So, anyone who wants to can go and scan signs throughout Manor and get more info.

Also, because these codes are often linked to websites, if anything about the project changes, information can almost be instantaneously updated.

Phil Tate is City Manager for Manor and says the process of using crowdsourcing didn't simply spring up out of the ground overnight. A lot of thought went into it, and it was an evolutionary process.

"We did it on a very small scale. Our initial cost on our QR codes -- putting them at historical sites, and that type of thing -- cost us $400. We did that kind of as an experiment. Then, the Council realized the value we were getting out of it and we expanded it. We have about 28 signs, and they're on all the city vehicles. . . . Just one after another. We've seen it grow into a really unique thing in the Austin area, and Austin, being noted for technology, has actually come to us and asked us questions. It's a great deal."

In addition to using this unique technology, Haisler and other city officials are working on Manor Labs, an open innovation platform.

"We crowdsource all of the research and development for our agency. We only have 35 employees, so there's not a lot we can do internally. So, we wanted to crowdsource those components. We have a very educated population base. . . . We wanted to do something that really leveraged the people that we have in our community and allow anyone to participate -- even those who don't live in Manor -- in helping us come up with some good solutions for our citizens."

Manor Labs was launched last year. Ideas are vetted by those who participate on the platform. It also differs from a traditional idea platform because it allows more interaction and involvement than a simple up or down vote.

"We want to develop ideas. We want to take the leg work off of the city employees and actually crowdsource that, as well. Our platform is automated. So, someone submits an idea, [which] is very easy to do. It's voted on. It's got to have so many page views, so many comments, so much buzz associated with the idea. Once it meets that criteria, it will automatically graduate to the next stage. Once it's in that stage, the city reviews the idea -- a department head will review the idea and determine whether they have enough information to proceed. If they don't, they'll send it back and tell the citizen they need more information. . . . If we do have enough information, then they'll advance it to the next stage."

And that next stage has to do with bigger picture items, such as cost and whether or not the project should be piloted or simply rolled out.

If an idea is rejected, for whatever reason, Haisler says that the citizen is given a reason why. It's all about transparency, he adds.

"Typically cost is a big factor. We'll say -- 'Unfortunately at this time, the city of Manor doesn't have the financial resources to do this', and maybe give them some helpful advice about applying for a grant or other items of interest to pay for the idea."

Okay, but what if the idea is do-able? Haisler says they have a reward system that involves 'inno-bucks', a virtual currency that can be used on the Manor Labs platform.

"So, if you submit an idea, that's 5,000 Innobucks. If you vote on an idea, it's 150 Innobucks, but if your idea is implemented, it's 300,000 Innobucks. So, you have all this virtual currency and you can actually trade it in for tangible products that have been donated. [There are] also honorary-type things, like you can be mayor for the day."