2011-11-16

Co.Exist

The National Piggy Bank: Microsoft Fixes The Government With Play Money

A new site lets you invest in government projects for fun, but with the potential for real-world results.

What would the public sector look like today if it had undergone the same sort of technological disruption that has rocked the business world over the last 15 years?

Certainly a lot different--and probably a lot better, according to founders of a new platform that wants to bring some of that dynamism and spirit to education, health care, and other public services.

The National Piggy Bank, founded last week at a conference in Washington D.C., aims to collect citizens’ ideas, have people vote on the best, and then see what a combination of capital, technology, and civic pride can achieve. Think of it as a Kickstarter for ideas for government. It is aiming high, and it has Microsoft’s backing, giving it the possibility of reaching a broad audience.

“Our lives as consumers--how we connect, conduct transactions, and many other things--have become better and better over the last 10 to 15 years. And yet, our lives as citizens haven’t changed appreciably, and the technology the government is building costs more and more,” says Evan Burfield, CEO of Synteractive, which created the site together with Microsoft.

The idea of the National Piggy Bank is to “bring the approaches and ideas of that one world into solving these big meaningful public sector problems,” he says.

On signing up, new members are given an imaginary $140,000--their share of the national debt. They then “invest” this money (in $10,000 increments) on specific projects on the National Piggy Bank site. Ideas so far include a proposal for a health cooperative for entrepreneurs; national youth academies for math and science; and centralized medical record systems. For now, the money just serves as a complex way of voting for your priorities, but the site has bigger plans.

Mark Drapeau, director of innovative engagement at Microsoft’s Office of Civic Innovation, wants to involve think tanks, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and policymakers, so the most popular ideas have a chance to go forward. Ideally, a VC firm might agree to actually fund a certain number of new ideas each year.

To incentivize participation, Drapeau is thinking of partnering with a daily deals site, like Groupon. And he is hoping to promote the site through Microsoft’s channels, including MSN and Xbox.

Burfield and Drapeau see the site as a “hub for engagement and entrepreneurship, and policy advocacy in the public sector.” But the aim isn’t simply to provide ideas for the existing public sector to take up. They also want people to do things for themselves.

“We are looking for ideas to make the process better. But there are some responsibilities that entrepreneurs and communities can take on for themselves,” Drapeau says. Burfield mentions Khan Academy--an enormous hub for educational content--as an example of a site that has shaken up the public sector without government support or approval.

It will be interesting to see if putting money in the National Piggy Bank results in any returns.

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