February 9, 2012 By Lauren Katims Nadeau
Maricopa County, Ariz., is perpetually on the hunt for new ideas. Last year, county leaders implemented a technology that has successfully engaged more than 11,000 employees across departments to share their thoughts on how to improve efficiency.
Through a Web-based platform called Spigit, Maricopa County, one of the largest counties in the country, uses crowdsourcing capabilities, social networking and a rewards program to encourage employee interaction in an online idea factory — a program they’ve given the tagline “Your ideas at work.”
“We haven’t seen any other counties of our size using a similar type of platform,” said Karen Stewart, the county’s innovation manager.
Some of the more popular ideas county employees have come up with include swapping Columbus Day for the day after Thanksgiving as a paid holiday, allowing employees to purchase an annual parking pass through payroll and offering a shuttle for employees from the downtown office location to other branches around the county.
In early February, the two hundredth employee suggestion came through the system. “Feedback from employees is that they are so happy to have a say in the process; they like the ability to be collaborative,” Stewart said.
Stewart and the innovation team were inspired by the success of Manor Labs, which the city’s former CIO, Dustin Haisler launched to the citizens of Manor, Texas in late 2010. Haisler now is listed as Spigit’s director of government innovation.
But for a county the size of Maricopa, with almost 4 million residents who reside in Phoenix and surrounding areas, officials wanted to make sure all the tweaks are worked out and the appropriate infrastructure is in place before releasing this “ideation” platform to the public. Currently, Stewart and her team are in the process of working on a plan for a public rollout that will occur in the near future.
The hope is that residents will see how successful the program has been internally for county governments, and realize the potential benefits of participating.
“The engaged, collaborating employee understands that we are part of a good organization,” said Richard de Uriarte, communications manager for Maricopa County. “They are the best ambassadors to the public; then the public starts to trust the government a little more.”
Twenty-two percent of Maricopa County’s employees are currently participating in the idea factory program. Stewart attributes the healthy participation rate to the way the county handled the launch.
In spring 2011, officials hand-picked four departments to pilot the program — Finance, Parks and Recreation, the Library District and the Department of Transportation. It was a good mix of the employee population, said Stewart of the professionals, engineers, certified public accountants and field staff trying out the technology.
After opening up the system to all employees that summer, within three months the county had 13 cross-functional teams, representing 26 different departments.
Officials altered the suggestion process to fit the county’s needs.
The crowdsourcing is done in the first collaboration stage. Employees get to vote, modify and comment on proposed ideas. Based on the number of page views, votes and the idea’s overall approval rating, an idea then graduates from collaboration to assessment.
The idea is passed to a group of “innovation moderators,” a voluntary team the county created in 2008 to improve the employee suggestion program and create more collaboration. A back-end system randomly selects five moderators to review the idea based on three criteria: feasibility, ease of adoption and does it line up with the county’s goals and priorities.
If the idea scores a 3 out of 5 or higher, it graduates to the development stage. Another group, which includes the idea’s author, subject matter experts and stakeholders, does an independent analysis of the idea before making the final decision.
“They have buy-in, they know the history — this is why we do it this way,” said Stewart. “If there are legal issues, we’ll have a legal counsel.”
Support from the County Manager David Smith has been key in furthering this idea and making it a priority. “He’s telling [the Innovation Collaboration Team) to use guerilla warfare tactics to get the ideas heard,” said Stewart.
One strategy is to get employees to log in to the idea factory before they sign into their email by programming Spigit to launch as soon as they turn on their computers.
The program divided into five categories: public impact, employee impact, impact on business processes, environmental sustainability -- and the fifth category is open. If a road worker clicks on public safety, he will see ideas tied to reducing crime rates and repaving asphalt.
“It gives employees a totally different perspective of their roles in government and helps them focus on the bigger picture,” said Stewart.
Through a gaming system, employees earn virtual funds called MC FUND$ that they can cash in for real merchandise in an online store. Rewards include lunch with an executive, T-shirts, baseball caps and business books. For an implemented idea, an employee gets 100,000 in the virtual currency. So far, nobody has cashed in, which Stewart said is because they’re enjoying using the system and not focusing on the material aspects.
“We really have two different types of rewards,” she said. “The first reward is the idea itself being implemented. The other reward is the collaboration.”