NYC installs virtual suggestion box

New York City tries out Spigit online forum software to solicit worker feedback

New York City is harnessing the power of employee-based collaborative filtering to solicit new ways to save money and improve city government.

The city has set up what is in effect a virtual suggestion box, called IdeaMarket, where eventually all 300,000 of the city's employees will be able to give the city their ideas about how to improve operations.

What differs IdeaMarket from the proverbial dusty suggestion box in the break room is that the employees themselves will be able to vote on which ideas they feel are the best ones and leave comments on how to improve the ideas even more.

"It's much more valuable to have a collaboration around an idea rather than a bilateral exchange between two people," said New York Deputy Mayor of Operations Stephen Goldsmith, who oversees the program.

The city's management, in turn, will use this input to pinpoint the highest-ranked suggestions for possible implementation. Even in an early pilot stage with a small number of employees, the project has already generated some potential money-saving ideas.

One worker suggested setting up an online market for items that agencies are relinquishing, so that other agencies could repurchase those items. Someone else suggested restructuring the budgets in such a way that agencies can keep the money they saved through their own energy conservation initiatives.

A couple of ideas are already being implemented, including one suggestion that the city invest in video conferencing to cut down on intra-city travel.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his recent State of the City annual address praised the project, and suggested he may open the service up to New York residents as well.

"This kind of open call for ideas -- or 'crowdsourcing,' as it's called -- has helped cutting-edge companies like Facebook and Netflix improve services and save money. And with more than 8.4 million people in our crowd, imagine what we can come up with," he said.

For Goldsmith, the service is valuable in that opens up communications across different levels of government, which traditionally has been difficult to enact on a formal scale.

"Public bureaucracies are very rigid and the boundaries between people are very hard to break," Goldsmith said. Generating innovative ideas requires collaboration and "government is very allergic to that as a matter of organization."

The IdeaMarket is a way to circumnavigate these barriers. "It would give a wide range of employees access to me and to each other," he said, noting that he signs into the service and reviews and comments on ideas every few days.

The highest-rated ideas will be examined on a rolling basis, Goldsmith said. Each agency has a person assigned to evaluate and implement ideas.

To get word out to employees, an invitation is sent out to city employee by e-mail. Thanks to a recent contract with Microsoft, the city has been able to offer e-mail to a larger number of city employees who work outside of offices, Goldsmith said.

Spigit, based in Pleasanton, California, provides the platform for IdeaMarket as a hosted service. Collaborative filtering has long been used in online forums such as Slashdot News and Digg.com, where users identify and vote for the most valuable comments and news items. But the basic idea can also be useful to large organizations seeking feedback from constituents or employees, said Paul Pluschkell, CEO of Spigit.

"Whether the Spigit-powered program will actually help New York become more efficient remains to be seen," wrote GigaOm analyst Mathew Ingram, in a blog post. "But at least the city government is trying to use social tools to improve the way it functions, which is an encouraging sign."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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