Ask, Spark, Crowdsource

“Hey dad, what new books should I get?”

“Why don’t you post a status online asking your friends for their suggestions?”

8 minutes later: “Woah, Ben, Ally, and Nora all suggested the same book. It actually sounds really great. That’s the winner right there. Can I get it?”

…A post-holiday conversation I did not personally have with my daughter, but perhaps similar to one many of you may have had with your own sons and daughters: whether your kids were on a quest for a new book, or movie, or help on their math homework.

As dad to three daughters and Acting Special Representative to the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State, I often find there are themes that are consistent throughout my day, no matter the setting. One of these themes centers on encouraging a crowd-sourcing mentality to find potential solutions for emerging questions or challenges. Whether I am at home with the kids on a Saturday afternoon or surrounded by colleagues on a Thursday morning in the office, I’m constantly learning from those around me and ever-cognizant and humbled that I may not have the perfect recommendation to my daughter’s hypothetical question on what she should add to her reading list (though like any good dad, I would, of course, have some recommendations ready to offer); nor do my colleagues and I alone hold the solutions to what we should do about the world’s most pressing diplomatic and development challenges.

However, other individuals, organizations, universities, and companies just might have the unique expertise and tools necessary to provide the right answers. I’ve come to realize—and hopefully my kids have started to as well—that raising the question or challenge out loud usually initiates a conversation. With a conversation sparked and each participants’ strengths brought to the table, a solution may be well on its way.

Within the State Department, we’ve embraced working with NGOs and the private sector to build partnerships that address diplomatic and development challenges. However, we’ve also become acutely aware that by including the public at large into the conversation fold, we’re more inclined to find innovative ideas and solutions that we in the USG and our partners may not have thought of otherwise. To better underscore the benefits of crowdsourcing, let’s bring Joy’s Law to the forefront: the management principle that no matter who you are, the smartest people won’t be working for you (as much as I appreciate my colleagues’ intelligence and daily hard work)! I’ve realized that once the competition opens up to others outside of my regular daily sphere, the floodgates open for un-traditional recommendations to start rolling in for how to best tackle whatever the issue at hand may be.

At this point, perhaps you’re thinking: “Okay, okay, I get it and I agree, but what tangible steps can I take to crowdsource solutions on a large scale?”

From our experience at the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships, we’ve had luck with the following three model examples which are just a sampling of the various ways outside solutions can be obtained:

  • Partnering with universities: engaging and garnering students’ novel and influential ideas on diplomacy, national security, and development by providing specific case studies for them to work on. See Diplomacy Lab.
  • Setting up a hackathon “franchise” model: obtaining volunteer technologists’ tangible solutions by building a framework for a weekend-long global hackathon in multiple cities while giving each host site the flexibility to individually mold its hackathon. See Fishackathon.
  • Creating a digital video challenge: asking filmmakers and the general public to submit short digital videos that address what democracy means to them, thereby raising a conversation and enabling the USG to better incorporate the public’s input into the USG’s missions. See Democracy Video Challenge.

We’ve also learned that these crowdsourcing mechanisms are more effective if you consider the following when crowdsourcing solutions:

  1. What—Keep your subject matter concrete. In order to increase your chances of receiving innovative and useful solutions from the public, ensure your problem statements are clear and focused on addressing a concrete set of issues.
  1. When/Where—Center your crowdsourcing initiative on a specific day or event. Announce its launch or have it take place on a day or at an event that aligns with the specific subject area. For instance, if you’re seeking solutions for a matter that revolves around our armed forces, you’ll get more visibility and traction if you hold the event on Veterans Day (November 11) or at a Memorial Day event, on the last Monday of May.
  1. Who—Think about who your champions or high-level supporters may be and try to get them plugged into your cause. More visibility for all of you is a win-win. For example, we’re holding a #Goal17 Twitter Challenge in conjunction with Global Partnerships Week (March 6-12). Five tweets. Five days. A week of innovation, impact, and partnerships. The #Goal17 Twitter Challenge is meant to inspire and inform the public on how public-private partnerships (#P3s) are crucial to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Corporate, government, and civil society leaders (though the challenge is open to all) will compete for the top tweet of the day regarding their work on public-private partnerships and the SDGs. The challenge will run March 6-10, 2017 through Global Partnerships Week.
    • March 6 — SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
    • March 7 — SDG 5: Gender Equity
    • March 8 — SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
    • March 9 — SDG 4: Quality Education
    • March 10 — SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

    The event will take place on Twitter at #Goal17 and will be amplified through Global Partnerships Week promotional sites. Winner gets bragging rights!

  2. Why—Identify and remember the reason for launching your crowd-sourcing endeavor. Are you seeking tangible, deliverable solutions for a problem (a solution-driven incentive)? Or, are you more concentrated on raising the profile of a specific issue, hoping to bring about conversation that could ultimately lead to the development of solutions (a public diplomacy-driven incentive)?

For a step-by-step guide on bringing a crowdsourcing project to life, check out:

Asking saves a lot of guesswork, and the right questions spark conversations that can lead to solutions.

For more on the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships, visit:

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