May 10, 2010 By Chad Vander Veen
Everyone appreciates being recognized for doing good work. If a raise or a promotion aren't in the cards, having a couple of paragraphs praising your work appear on the White House's official blog isn't too shabby a substitute. It's even more remarkable if the work garnering attention is done by a 23-year-old working in a town of 5,000 people.
This is the reality for Dustin Haisler, the CIO of Manor, Texas, who is gaining recognition as an innovator in local government. Last year, Haisler earned praise (including some from this magazine) for dispersing inexpensive Quick Response (QR) codes - two-dimensional bar codes - all over Manor. When QR codes are read by mobile phones with the appropriate free software, users are directed to a Web site that has more information about the tagged object.
But it was one of Haisler's newer endeavors, a Web platform called Manor Labs, that President Barack Obama's tech team found appealing. Manor Labs, which launched in late October, is a Web portal where citizens can submit ideas to improve their city. From conception to (possibly) reality, every decision city officials make about a submitted idea is put in plain sight. At the same time, users can participate in and affect an idea's development. For a president who is trying to deliver on promises of government transparency, it's easy to see why the White House is giving Manor Labs a closer look.
Haisler likes to describe Manor Labs as an open innovation portal. "Instead of just taking ideas," he said, "we're taking those ideas and turning them into actual solutions off the platform."
Manor Labs features elements of social media sites like Facebook, GovLoop and Digg, where users promote or bury items submitted by others. Manor Labs depends on user-submitted ideas. When users register with Manor Labs - something anyone, anywhere can do - they're given 25,000 "Innobucks," a virtual currency for use on the site. Various activities, such as commenting, voting or submitting an idea, earn users more Innobucks. If users earn enough, they can shop at the Manor Labs store for prizes like a Police Department T-shirt or even buy the right to have a week named after them.
Watch Video: Tiny Manor, Texas, proves that digital innovation isn't just for big cities.
The cornerstone of Manor Labs is soliciting ideas from city residents, or anyone else, to make the city a better place to live. What makes Manor Labs appealing besides the prizes is that users can actively participate in making an idea come to fruition. When an idea is submitted, it goes into what Haisler calls the "idea funnel," which has four levels: incubation, validation, emergence and closed.
"When an idea is suggested, it immediately falls into the incubation category," Haisler said. "Once it's in that category, people can vote and comment on it, and whoever submitted the idea can recruit team members to be a part of it. They must have [a certain number of] votes, page views, comments, and so much 'buzz' behind their idea before it advances. When they meet all of those criteria, the idea automatically graduates to the idea validation stage. So there's no staff involvement. Once it's at the validation stage, a department head will evaluate the idea and he or she will review it on a series of metrics."
The metrics include determining what problem the idea addresses, whether it's sustainable and how much, if anything, it will cost to implement. If the idea fails in