Ash Center Announces Finalists and Top 10 Programs for Public Engagement in Government Award

May 2, 2017
Ash Center Announces Finalists and Top 10 Programs for Public Engagement in Government Award

Cambridge, MA – Today the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, announced the Top 10 programs for the Roy and Lila Ash Innovations in Public Engagement in Government Award, including the four finalists who will compete for the $100,000 grand prize on May 17 in Cambridge.

Launched in 2014, the Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government was initially conceived of through a joint effort of the Innovations in American Government (IAG) Awards and the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy program to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Ash Center. Now in its second cycle, the award is given under the auspices of the IAG program, offered in conjunction with the traditional IAG Award as an additional grand prize for programs from all levels of government — federal, state, county, local, tribal, and territorial — and across the country.

The Ash Award for Public Engagement in Government aims to highlight government programs, policies, and initiatives that encourage public participation in a range of budgetary, regulatory, and policy decisions. This award was also designed to recognize those efforts that successfully employ digital technology and crowdsourcing techniques to broaden public involvement in government decision-making and drive problem-solving.

These initiatives represent the committed efforts of city, state, and federal governments to engage with the communities and citizens they represent and were selected by a team of policy experts, researchers, and practitioners. A full list of the Top 10 programs is available below.

Those programs named as finalists will be making presentations to the National Selection Committee of the Innovations in American Government Awards, with the winner to be announced this summer. The presentations will be streamed live starting at 1:00 pm EDT on Thursday, May 17, on the Ash Center website at   

Tony Saich, director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, remarked that the Top 10 programs “demonstrate the expanding horizons of how technology can be used to engage citizens and disseminate information more broadly than it ever has before. These programs are not just changing the old town hall method of public discourse, but also showing how the principles and tools of engagement, crowdsourcing, and open information can be used in initiatives working to address diverse societal challenges, such as enfranchisement and informed voting, mental health, criminal justice, and community development.”

The Innovations in American Government Awards was created by the Ford Foundation in 1985 in response to widespread pessimism and distrust in government’s effectiveness. Since its inception, over 500 government innovations across all jurisdiction levels have been recognized and have collectively received more than $22 million in grants to support dissemination efforts. Such models of good governance also inform research and academic study around key policy areas both at Harvard Kennedy School and academic institutions worldwide. Past winners have served as the basis of case studies taught in more than 450 Harvard courses and over 2,250 courses worldwide.

For more information, contact:

Daniel Harsha

Associate Director for Communications, Ash Center


About the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation advances excellence in governance and strengthens democratic institutions worldwide. Through its research, education, international programs, and government innovations awards, the Center fosters creative and effective government problem solving and serves as a catalyst for addressing many of the most pressing needs of the world’s citizens. For more information, visit


The 2017 Top 10 Roy and Lila Ash Innovations in Public Engagement in Government Award Programs

BigApps Competition

City of New York, NY

The New York City BigApps Competition is the largest city-run civic tech competition in the country. The annual competition is the brainchild of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). First announced in June 2009, the BigApps Competition was designed to be an annual contest spanning several months that would incentivize software developers and members of the public to use newly released city data to create web and mobile applications with the chance to win cash prizes. BigApps aimed to diversify New York City’s economy by strengthening the information technology and digital media sectors of the city’s business community, foster a culture of innovation, and make city government more transparent, accessible, and accountable to its citizens. As part of the competition’s initial launch, NYCEDC worked with more than 30 city agencies to release more than 170 datasets, including information on census figures, restaurant inspections, property sales, and traffic. BigApps empowered the public to use this newly released data to build applications that could improve life for New Yorkers. In the competition’s first year, 85 applications were submitted and 10 winners were awarded a total of $20,000. Since then, the program has evolved to themed competitions that address specific problems. For instance, in 2015, BigApps called for participants to build products addressing four specific city challenges consistent with the mayor’s priorities: affordable housing, zero waste, connected cities, and civic engagement. NYCEDC partnered with over a dozen city agencies, policy advocates, and tech experts to create a network of mentors that helped competition participants create impactful products addressing these issues. Recognizing that previous competition winners were often left with limited support after the contest's conclusion, NYCEDC also provided the 2015 winners with four months of programming and support services tailored towards civic tech innovators in addition to a total of $125,000 in cash prizes.

California Citizens Redistricting Commission

State of California


For decades, the California state and congressional districts were gerrymandered districts created by either a Democratic- or Republican-controlled legislative body. This process allowed legislators to choose their voters and virtually guarantee re-election, rigging outcomes and preventing voters from having a true voice in the selection of their representatives. Years of effort to work with partisan legislative bodies to prevent gerrymandering were unsuccessful. In 2008, Common Cause, The Irvine Foundation, and other nonprofit civic organizations launched the Voters First Act, a public initiative to take the drawing of district boundaries away from the state legislature and to give it to a 14-member citizen commission. California voters approved the ballot measure in the general elections and the Commission became an independent division of the State Government. The Commission, incorporating an unprecedented level of public involvement and transparency, completed the  2011 redistricting and its maps were used in the 2012 California general elections. Presently, the Commission is preparing the foundation work for the next Commission, who will be selected in 2020, to help smooth the process and to ensure future underserved communities and communities of interest are actively engaged in the democratic process.

Citizens' Initiative Review

State of Oregon

One of the earliest states to adopt the initiative system to introduce ballot measures, Oregon was the first in the nation to adopt the Citizens' Initiative Review (CIR) model after experiencing dramatic increases in both the number of initiatives filed and the amount of money campaigns were spending. Research conducted in Oregon suggested that voters were searching for trustworthy sources of high quality and unbiased information on which to base decisions regarding ballot initiatives, and the CIR was established in response to that need. During the review process, a randomly selected and demographically balanced panel is selected to match the demographics of the state's population concerning party affiliation, voting frequency, age, gender, ethnicity, educational attainment, and geographic location. Twenty-four panelists meet for several days to review a ballot measure. In order to ensure economic diversity, they are compensated for their time and travel expenses. Trained moderators guide the panelists as they gather information, interview neutral policy experts, question advocates for and against the measure, and deliberate. At the conclusion of each review, panelists draft a “Citizens’ Statement” highlighting the most important findings about the measure and the most relevant arguments for and against its passage. The statement is published in the Voters’ Guide as an easily accessible resource for voters to use at election time. Independent research conducted on the CIR since its inception has indicated that the reviews were unbiased, widely used, and help voters learn more about the ballot measures than other parts of the Voters’ Guide. The CIR was launched in Oregon as a pilot project in 2010, and was later made a permanent part of Oregon elections when the Oregon legislature created a state commission, the Citizens' Initiative Review Commission (CIRC), to oversee the CIR process. The CIRC is comprised of former panelists, former moderators, and appointees from the governor and senate leadership. Oregon held its fourth round of CIRs in 2016, having worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders and participants on continual process improvements. The success of the CIR in Oregon led to a pilot project in Arizona in 2014, which has since resulted in the adoption of the CIR by the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, which ran the first publicly funded CIR in the nation in 2016.

Community Engagement Division

Commonwealth of Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office

The Community Engagement Division (CED) brings the resources of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) to previously underserved communities, engaging people and providing direct access wherever they live. Realizing that many Massachusetts residents were unaware of the assistance and resources directly available to them, Attorney General Maura Healey announced in her inaugural address in January 2015 that she would make community engagement a top priority of her office. CED launched an initiative called Community Action Hours (CAH), which builds on AG Healey’s promise to bring the resources of the office directly to the neighborhoods at times and places that are more convenient for residents.  These community events are held all across the Commonwealth to increase the office’s visibility, educate citizens about the resources available to them, and bridge the gap to underserved communities. The AG’s staff takes consumer complaints and provide trainings on a variety of topics, such as landlord and tenant rights, consumer protection, and worker’s rights. Since June 2015, CED staff has assisted 8,357 people and oversees the administration of grants to nonprofit agencies across Massachusetts that are funded through settlements achieved by the Attorney General’s Office. During fiscal year 2015, the Attorney General’s Office awarded more than $14 million in grants to support efforts related to consumer protection, financial literacy, public health and safety, youth employment, mitigation of the foreclosure crisis and to support voluntary mediation services.  Most recently, the Attorney General’s Office implemented two new initiatives connecting residents of Massachusetts with free legal services; Wage & Hour Clinics and Consumer Debt Collection workshops. The Wage & Hour clinics invite workers who have received a Private Right of Action letter from the AGO to attend the clinic and be matched with legal service providers who can give them advice and potentially represent them in legal action to reclaim their lost wages. In the Debt Collection Workshops, consumers who have been sued over a debt in the Small Claims session at the Boston Municipal Court are mailed a letter by the AGO encouraging them to attend, and at the session are match with volunteer lawyers to represent them at the session. Both initiatives validate AG Healey’s commitment to being an innovator in order to better serve the people of the Commonwealth.

Community Improvement District Revolving Loan Fund

City of Kansas City, MO

Of the almost 200 Zip+4 zones in Kansas City, 98 zones were considered economically distressed in 2011 when the city began its Community Improvement District (CID) Revolving Loan Fund, enabling citizens in a neighborhood to take action and lead change from within. Instead of relying on outsiders to make neighborhoods better, the CID Revolving Loan Fund provided committed citizens with the means to take action. This approach enabled the city to provide resources from a top-down perspective, but also focus on opportunities where neighborhood leaders could identify and solve issues from the bottom up. Leaders in a neighborhood with resources and support can make changes that stand the test of time and fundamentally alter their landscape. Once a CID is formed, those organizations repay the fund, making funds available for additional organizations. As part of this effort, the city worked on a variety of tools that assisted organizations in the formation of their CIDs and keep their expenses down.

The Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce was the first organization to work under the CID Revolving Fund ordinance. It established the “Independence Avenue Community Improvement District” on March 21, 2013, which provided for enhanced and reliable improvements, security, services, and activities, such as general maintenance of public areas, continued efforts to address area beautification related issues, as well as other concerns within the Independence Avenue corridor. This CID successfully led “crime and grime” maintenance and landscaping projects, hosted neighborhood pride activities, and supported the construction of community centers. The CID Revolving Fund leveraged the success of a similar program developed by local business leaders in 2006, when the Downtown Community Improvement District helped lead the renaissance of the downtown section of the city. During the last 10 years, these businesses collaborated to generate over $6 billion worth of improvements and established a secure environment into which the city could invest in a modern streetcar line and smart city program. It is the city’s hope that by continuing to enable local citizens to take their communities back, future development across all 318 square miles of Kansas City will follow a similar growth pattern.

Creating Community Solutions

Department of Health & Human Services

Responding to the Sandy Hook tragedy, in January 2013, President Barack Obama directed Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Secretary Arne Duncan of the US Department of Education to launch a national dialogue on mental health. Secretary Sebelius recognized that mental illness affects nearly every family, yet there is a continued struggle to have an open and honest conversation around the issue. Misperceptions, discrimination, fears of social consequences, and the discomfort associated with talking about such illnesses all tend to keep people silent; but with early intervention, many people with mental illnesses can and do lead productive and full lives.

The challenge facing the administration was how to convene a national participation process that would help Americans to learn more about mental health issues, assess how mental health problems affect their communities and younger populations, and decide what actions to take to improve mental health in their families, schools, and communities.

Officials from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within HHS, understood the need to collaborate with the field of deliberative democracy in order to design a process that integrated multiple levels of collaboration. Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse called together the leaders of five other deliberative democracy organizations to spearhead Creating Community Solutions (CCS). Under the umbrella of CCS, 230 community conversations on mental health have occurred to date.

Digital Democracy         

California State University


Digital Democracy delivers a first-of-its-kind online, searchable database of California legislative hearings, enabling users to search video archives by keyword, topic, speaker or date. Through advanced software technologies, inventories of dense, static bill text and vote counts give way to interactive multimedia clips that bring the lawmaking process to life. Prior to its inception, the IT staff within the California state legislature dismissed the concept as technologically infeasible and cost prohibitive. One state software developer estimated the cost to build the platform at $80–100 million. A rough proof-of-concept platform built by the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy at the California Polytechnic State University was demonstrated in June 2014 and caught the attention of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which provided the $1.2 million of funding. Over the next six months, nearly 50 students built the full-scale platform. The site was released to the public in May 2015 and has been live without interruption since. Teams of students continue to develop and deploy new technology innovations to increase the site’s effectiveness. Since launch, significant technology improvements have been made to increase the automation and accuracy of transcription and speaker identification. Additionally, students have developed and deployed new tools requested by users, including an e-mail notification system and a custom video player that enables the clipping, montaging, and social media sharing and embedding of key video moments. With a growing ‘big data’ set underlying the platform, students are currently developing analytics to explore trends and relationships between special interests and lawmakers.

Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Initiative  

Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing & Citizen Science


The Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS) developed a collection of resources, designed by and for federal practitioners, focusing on two approaches to open innovation. Both approaches--crowdsourcing, in which organizations submit open calls for assistance from large groups of volunteer problem-solvers, and citizen science, in which public participants engage in any part of the scientific process--promote public engagement as a mechanism to address complex problems. These approaches represent new types of collaboration and engage members of the public, many of whom might not otherwise be consulted, in research and solution development, thus allowing researchers to gain valuable data and insights. Such open innovation in the federal government often faces challenges of awareness, culture, and institutional understanding. CCS initiatives help the federal government produce these new types of collaboration. CCS meetings and events have connected practitioners and built new capacity to develop broad federal understanding of the value of these approaches, as well as specific resources to support their implementation. Through a partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Commons Lab at the Wilson Center, and the General Services Administration, CCS delivers these resources to the federal community and public through a centralized, high-profile site at The site contains three dynamic components: a portal to CCS for federal workers, a how-to toolkit, and a catalog containing over 300 federal projects.

CCS mobilized 125 of its members to develop the toolkit, which offers guidance to federal practitioners on every aspect of a crowdsourcing or citizen science project from design through data analysis. Complemented by case studies, the toolkit provides the resources needed to pitch, launch, maintain, and scale projects. The catalog follows up on the toolkit and gives agencies the opportunity to detail the opportunities, results, and benefits of projects ranging from tracking weather to transcribing historical records. These resources are continually updated and improved by federal citizen science and crowdsourcing project managers to reflect the most current information. CCS also worked closely with the White House to shape a memo providing federal agencies with high-level support and guidance to further expand their use of crowdsourcing and citizen science. After five years of momentum-building by CCS and others, on January 6, 2017, President Obama signed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which for the first time gives clear, broad authority to all federal agencies to conduct citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. This bi-partisan bill points to an even brighter future for these approaches in government.

Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP)      

County of Los Angeles, CA


Los Angeles County spans 88 cities with approximately 5 million registered voters - the largest and most diverse election jurisdiction in the country. Election services for the County rely on technology that was first introduced in the 1960s and is now reaching the end of its life span. In an effort to replace the aging voting system and to continue to provide accessible and secure elections, the County launched the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP). The necessity and urgency for such project reflected the lack of voting systems in the market that would appropriately cater to the complexities of LA County voter needs, and VSAP was launched to bring together election officials, academics and community stakeholders to find a voting systems solution for the County’s voters. VSAP’s vision is to use an open, transparent and data-driven process to develop a voting system that meets the needs of current and future LA County voters. In support of this vision, a great amount of user testing and public opinion research has been conducted since the launch of the project. The VSAP has partnered with a wide array of organizations including academic and research institutions, design agencies, and community advocacy groups. Furthermore, a set of General Voting System Principles was adopted to guide system development and implementation. Finally, the County established the VSAP Advisory Committee and VSAP Technical Advisory Committee, composed of subject-matter experts, academics and community leaders, to advise the County throughout system design, development and implementation.

The research has resulted in the development of a completely new voting experience model for LA County voters. This includes new technology, systems, and processes. The model provides new options that increase accessibility, usability and flexibility for voters. With the voting experience model now identified, the VSAP now continues to work to refine the systems and develop system specifications for manufacturing with the goal of implementing this new experience by 2020. For the first time in a voting system development project, the VSAP has allowed voters to have a voice in the development of their voting experience. It has turned the voting system development process from one that prioritizes profits for voting system vendors to a process that prioritizes voter needs.