The GovLab Living Labs: Experiments in Smarter Governance

Improving people’s lives by changing how we govern.

Current societal problems demand radical innovation in how we govern. Policy makers around the world are facing increasingly complex and interconnected societal challenges: How can we provide health care for everyone at lower cost; reduce poverty and economic inequality; reduce and prevent obesity; redesign urban environments; fight global warming; combat the threat of terrorism; increase creative flourishing and human well-being and do more in our communities with scarcer resources? Unfortunately, we are trying to address 21st century problems with outdated institutional designs:

  • Technology has lowered the cost and ease of communication, yet we still have an 18th century model of representative democracy where participation is limited to occasional voting and affords few opportunities for people to participate in governing.
  • Technology is enabling diverse experts with different skills and experience to work together, across a distance, yet we still have a 19th century model of centralized and professional bureaucracy.
  • Research demonstrates that people can and will collaborate in purposeful groups on- and off-line, yet we still have a political culture dominated by entrenched parties and deep pockets that treats a talented public as outsiders and impedes collaboration.

In our current model of government, an elite group of elected and appointed leaders is supposed to solve problems without significantly engaging the insights, experience, and brainpower of the public.

We don’t need collaboration because of a shortage of information. We produce every two days more data than we created between the dawn of humanity and today.[i] Rather, we need to engage outside expertise in order to identify relevant, specific and timely information that aligns to decision-making.  But citizen engagement hasn’t led to leaders being able to use collective intelligence to govern better.

At the Governance Lab at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University, we want to explore whether targeting opportunities to participate based on people’s expertise – not their credentials alone but also their wisdom, know-how and experience – might make it possible for institutions to work with citizens more collaboratively to the end of solving real problems, and improving people’s lives.

We are testing and analyzing how mayors and CEOs alike can leverage new tools and techniques to find those with formal training and informal know how. We want to learn how we can engage citizens and community members better who are more likely to contribute their talents in ways that speak to their passions and abilities. Through experimentation with real world institutions we want to identify when and how crowdsourcing wisely, rather than just widely, works and why.

Tapping Intelligence and Expertise: Active Citizenship

pulse-pointA life-saving app called PulsePoint is demonstrating the power of tapping a community’s unique talents. In 350 communities across 14 states, PulsePoint enables local 911 emergency services to notify registered and trained CPR users, which includes off-duty doctors, nurses, EMTs, police, and others, to come to the aid of their neighbors. When someone is having a cardiac arrest, PulsePoint sends out an alert to qualified people in the area: CPR NEEDED. PulsePoint has enabled 6,000 citizen rescuers to come to the aid of victims in cardiac arrest.

Now imagine that the same kind of approach were used, not only to bring expertise to bear in an emergency, but to make citizen expertise part and parcel of daily governance. With input from citizens who have expertise in technology, finance, education, health care, or other areas – or who simply have on-the-ground experience and insights from living in their communities – we could:

  • Improve how we deliver government services, whether education, training or wellness services, as a result of failing to take advantage of ways that people can help each other.
  • Improve how we make public decisions in government by tapping the intelligence and expertise of people in our communities, leveraging their insights to inform governance.
  • Improve how we understand complex and conflicting scientific information to the end of improving the quality of government policies.
  • Improve and increase how and when people do public service and realize the benefits that come from active citizenship and community engagement.

If Only We Knew How to Match People to Public Problems

  • fdaToday we have the science and technology – expert discovery and networking tools – such as LinkedIn for business and VIVO for science for identifying who knows what and targeting requests to participate to those most likely to contribute helpfully. With the ability to identify and target engagement for a review panel to a small number of relevant audiences such as doctors, engineers, scientists, but also patients and their families, an agency like the FDA improves the chances of ensuring that a cutting-edge medical device will be both safe and comes to market quickly.  This is precisely the goal of the FDA’s prototype for a new expert search platform called FDAProfiles. Identifying who knows what is one part of the challenge, knowing how to ask a question to elicit information germane to decisionmaking is another important step in connecting expertise to decisionmaking at different stages of the policymaking process.
  • Crowdsourcing platforms  – which are designed to coordinate work by a distributed group — simplify the process of asking and answering questions effectively. Brainstorming (also called “ideation”) platforms like Idea Scale that the White House and federal agencies started using in 2009 to solicit, rate and rank ideas, as well as Q&A sites like Stack Exchange or Quora designed to enable finding answers to short questions, are popular examples today of ways to engage more people.
  • Prizes help create the incentive for insightful enthusiasts to emerge from the woodwork. Posing a challenge backed by a cash or reputational prize to a large number of potential solvers is proving to create an incentive for someone with a good solution to a hard problem such as bike rack design to participate.[ii] While expert networking platforms increase the number of needles in the haystack, prize-backed challenges depend upon having a big enough haystack and an enticing enough purse to coax out the needle. Prizes are a potential complement to targeting requests to participate.

But a great deal of work is needed to understand what works:

  • How do we identify people’s expertise, especially different types of expertise that might include formal credentials or informal experience?
  • What technologies from trust networks to sentiment analysis make expertise findable?
  • How do we match people to problems at different stages of the policymaking process?
  • How do we inculcate diverse forms of expertise to avoid targeted participation from devolving into technocracy?
  • How do we ask them to develop implementable and practical proposals, answer specific questions, undertake tasks, and do other work in the public interest in ways that are useful? In short, how do we design public engagement practices that improve every phase of the policymaking process?
  • How do we create incentives for people to participate in solving public problems?

Smarter Governance Project at the Living Labs

At the GovLab, our Living Labs works with real world institutions to solve problems and, at the same time, answer these kinds of research questions. The Smarter Governance Project is a Living Labs initiative aimed at experimenting with diverse strategies for using collective intelligence for governance.

Just as advertisers and campaign consultants use new technology to ensure that the right people see ads for a product or a candidate and to “convert” those eyeballs into a sale or a donation, the GovLab is studying how similar techniques for targeting requests to participate might promote democratic engagement.

On one end of the spectrum, highly algorithmic and mathematical approaches involve mining different public datasets such as Twitter feeds, GitHub commits, publication and citation databases to understand better how to discover different forms of expertise. But there are also lightweight techniques such as asking people to fill in a form and populate a database with information about skills, abilities and interests. Whether passively scraped from existing datasets or manually inputted through active data collection, we have new opportunities to identify who knows what and use such meta-directories to target opportunities to participate.

To this end, GovLab is running parallel experiments on Smarter Governance designed to deepen our understanding of how to discover, search and match expertise to public problems. In some cases, these may involve building and in others adapting new technologies. By honing our insights into how organizations can practically and quickly obtain expertise, we can apply our understanding to use smarter governance to tackle myriad serious challenges.

Current Projects

Building on earlier work developing Peer to Patent, the first expert network for a fedepeer-to-patentral government agency that connected volunteer scientists and technologists to the national patent office to supply information to examiners and prototyping the Cairns Project, designed to crowdsource and visualize knowledge from those with specific expertise about a project, we are undertaking three streams of R&D work:

  1. Matching ExpertiseIf We Match Expertise to Engagement Opportunities, Are People More Likely to Participate? – Typically, governments issue open calls for public engagement, whether in the form of voting, commenting on rule or participating in a public meeting. Occasionally, there are efforts to recruit people to advisory panels and peer review panels on the basis of credentials. Starting with the 55,000 people who work, study and live at New York University the OPEN NYU project aims to uncover different ways to mine information, such as existing human resources data, online profiles and biosketches, grants and publications data, and to try to match people to participation opportunities that need their engagement, such as helping a global faculty meeting develop strategies for online education or assisting the bookstore with improving its operations. While these crowdsourcing projects will also be open to anyone who chooses, we want to test different strategies for identifying what we can know about people and what they know.
  2. Finding Expertise If We Identify and Connect Global, Cross-Disciplinary Technology Experts, Can We Easily Search for and Find Expertise When Needed? The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers plays a critical role in managing the Internet: it coordinates the Internet’s unique identifier system.[iii] By giving every computer a unique address, ICANN enables one, global Internet.[iv]  To manage an ever-expanding population of machines and users, ICANN has had to make hard and highly technical decisions, such as how to expand the character-set from the Latin script to permit characters from other scripts (Chinese, Cyrillic, etc.) and encode those characters in a way that can everybody can understand. Unlike NYU where the population is limited and the subject matter unlimited, ICANN needs to get the best technical expertise from the widest possible community to enhance both the quality and legitimacy of decisions. Here we are exploring techniques, such as leveraging VIVO’s ontology and its linked, open data platform, currently in use for making academic expertise searchable for research purposes, to see whether we can make different open data sources searchable in an effort to make global communities of experts more findable. In particular, we want to test how we can discover tech expertise more quickly and in a more targeted fashion.
  3. Disclosing ExpertiseIf We Ask People to Self-Identify Their Expertise, Does that Increase the Likelihood of Citizen Engagement? Working with partner cities to be selected, the Athens Project is an effort to prototype a simple, open source form-filling tool designed to enable a medium-sized city to inventory the expertise in the municipal bureaucracy and, eventually, the community’s population. We want to explore different strategies for getting people to self-identify know how and expertise and measure whether asking people to do so increases their likelihood of participation. We think that low tech, simple tools like searchable forms are an ideal way to get smaller communities to inventory their own assets. We are actively seeking project partners, vendors and researchers to engage in this prototyping effort with us.

We are sharing what we learn with a Wiki to capture case studies, stories and examples of the use of Smarter Governance techniques and their impact.

The Open Gov Academy, GovLab’s online learning platforms will offer video interviews with policy and tech entrepreneurs who explain what is Smarter Governance, how it works and ideas for how to implement it in practice. The Academy also offers curated syllabi of readings on smarter governance. (Launch November 2013)

We will be holding events throughout the year, including the GovLab Ideas Lunch series to deepen our understanding of the problem.

How You Can Help.

  • We are looking for institutional partners interested in implementing new designs for identifying, matching and crowdsourcing expertise. Are you an agency looking to get more innovative thinkers onto review panels? Are you a city wanting to tap the talents of your workers and citizens? Are you a foundation that needs to get creative thinking across multiple disciplines to address an important social problem? Are you an NGO trying to get more people engaged in how you make a decision or tackle a problem?
  • We are looking for technology platforms – commercial and academic – and ontologies that can enable smarter governance. Perhaps you run a project involving people search? Expert networking? Expert systems? Sentiment analysis? Or maybe you know of a technique we have never heard of that could lead to better ways to match specific people to problems?
  • We are looking for researchers who want to help us study what works – We are looking at different ways to pose questions and frame problems that can motivate people to contribute and collaborative. We need help assessing the impact. What works? What leads to more legitimate decisionmaking? More efficient decisionmaking? What ultimately benefits people?
  • We want to know what and who else is out there interested in Smarter Governance.
  • Tell us: [email protected]

[i] MG Siegler, “Eric Schmidt: Every 2 Days We Create As Much Information As We Did Up To 2003,” Tech Crunch, August 4, 2010,

[ii] See “‘And the winner is…’ Capturing the promise of philanthropic prizes,” McKinsey & Company, July 2009,; and Kevin C. Desouza, “ Using Competitions and Awards to Spur Innovation,” IBM Center for The Business of Government Using Technology Series, 2012,

[iii] For a comprehensive description of ICANN’s work as it relates to Internet technologies and key business operation players on the Internet, see “Understanding the Technical and Business Functions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).” The GovLab. (September 2013).

[iv] “What Does ICANN Do.” ICANN. Retrieved from For a greater explanation of ICANN’s work and the technologies and business operation players of the Internet, refer to “Understanding the Technical and Business Functions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).” The GovLab. (September 2013).

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  1. The GovLab Living Labs: Experiments in Smarter Governance - October 9, 2013

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