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Investing in "Crazy" Innovative Ideas to Promote Global Transparency and Accountability

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, October 3 2012

Global Integrity, the DC-based NGO that develops and applies technological innovations to projects related to government transparency and accountability, is celebrating two new projects this week. The Open Government Hub held its launch event on Monday; it is an open space that brings together some of the leading NGOs that develop technology, policy and data innovations as a means of fostering government transparency and fighting corruption. A second initiative is Testing 1 2 3, which offers grants of $10,000 to applicants who successfully pitch a new idea that uses technology to promote transparency and accountability.

The Open Government Hub brings together some of leading names in transparency NGOs — like Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Open Government Partnership. The idea, says Global Integrity's Nathaniel Heller, is to provide a place to work and share ideas for people with a common goal and different, but complementary, means of achieving them. He spoke enthusiastically of Monday's launch event, which he said was "jam-packed," with supporters, including White House staff. It was a "community event full of people, substance and ideas," said Heller.

Testing 1 2 3 is a Global Integrity initiative to applicants who successfully pitch an innovative idea that drives transparency and accountability efforts. Approximately one dozen applicants will be selected to receive grants of $10,000 toward developing their ideas.

A small team of us at Global Integrity will be evaluating applications as guided by our selection criteria to determine finalists, with external expert advice on a case-by-case basis to assist in the process. Innovators whose ideas are selected for the final round will be offered a chance to explain the uniqueness of their idea, the strength of their testing model, and their own capability to try it out, through a phone or web interview with the Global Integrity team. Final investment decisions will be made by Global Integrity and will consider both written applications as well as final interviews. Throughout the selection process, we will be posting a brief description of each submitted idea on our website for public discussion.

The Global Integrity team expects the failure rate of these projects to be high — perhaps as high as 90 percent. The idea is to document and learn from the failures so that they can be used as teaching models. Heller said he was inspired by a keynote address delivered by Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit Inc., who said that his company was in "a constant embrace of innovation and learning by failure." Heller was inspired by these words, particularly because he was frustrated with the slow pace of change in the NGO world.

NGOs, he said, tended to be conservative and risk-averse. This is understandable: Traditional donors want to see end-of-year reports that show how their money has been used to fund successful projects, which is why NGOs tend to hide failures.

Part of the idea of 1 2 3 program is to "sort of poke at the idea that NGOs need to be conservative and risk averse. We are hoping to shake things up a bit."

The idea of investing money in ideas that are likely to fail has been advocated by a wide spectrum of private and public institutions, including the State Department under the auspices of its Twenty-first Century Statecraft:

Our bilateral and multilateral dialogues support science, technology, and innovation abroad by promoting improved education; research and development funding; good governance and transparent regulatory policies; markets that are open and competitive; and policies that allow researchers and companies to succeed, and, if they fail, to have the opportunity to try again. We advocate for governments to embrace and enforce an intellectual property system that allows innovators to reap the benefits of their ideas and also rewards their risk taking. Abraham Lincoln himself held a patent on an invention, a device for preventing ships from being grounded on shoals. He said in his "Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions" in 1859 that patents "added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things."

In the case of Testing 1 2 3, we are not talking about enormous amounts of cash. But for a group of young, idealistic innovators the money is useful both in a tangible way and as a much-needed psychological boost — otherwise known as validation.

Since grant recipients will be working and developing their ideas remotely and not at the Global Integrity office in Washington, DC, monitoring will be performed via phone and report, as explained in the Testing 1 2 3 site's FAQ:

Following our decision and announcement to invest in certain ideas, we will directly engage over-the-phone with selected innovators on a monthly basis. These phone calls will serve as a platform for innovators (throughout the 2-6 months of testing their ideas) to ask us any questions that they may have. We will act as a sounding board for innovators and provide guidance where and when it may be needed. Additionally, to take stock of progress made and yet to be made, we will be asking innovators for the following standard set of updates on each call: i) Summary of activities accomplished, ii) Challenges faced and overcome, iii) Challenges outstanding, and iv) Next steps.

Upon the completion of testing ideas, we will ask innovators to document their experiences, including: i) Process summary of the trial, ii) Lessons learned – accomplishments & challenges, iii) Results/Outputs - what worked, what failed (relate back to original theory of change), iv) Going Forward – goals for the future, next steps.

In answer to the FAQ, "What if my idea is a complete failure," the answer is, "Not a problem. Although we hope to see some successes, we are aware that not everything will result in the same way. What we do expect is to document and learn from the testing experience and share this with the greater transparency and accountability community."

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