Games in government: how to get public servants excited about work

Gamification is an easy, low-cost way to recapture public servants' attention

Ten years ago, the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had a problem: many of its employees were given little decision-making power, and as a result, they were not engaged with their work.

“Most DWP employees didn’t have a lot of autonomy — they would just have to follow processes. We wanted to find a way to make their voices heard,” said David Cotterill, former Deputy Director of Innovation at the DWP.

Prior to 2009, the DWP had solicited ideas about workplace improvement from its 120,000 employees with suggestion boxes — an archaic process that led to little concrete action. Cotterill’s innovation team wanted to introduce a more interactive way for employees to share their suggestions — which is how Idea Street, an online idea-exchange game, was born.

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“We were trying to subvert the decision-making hierarchy at DWP, which is a very hierarchical organisation,” said Cotterill, who now works as Director of Cloud Services at software firm cBrain. “When frontline staff have ideas, they go to groups of committees, and nothing ever gets done. We were trying to allow people to actually implement their own ideas — which they did.”

On Idea Street, employees are rewarded for generating new ideas or developing colleagues’ suggestions with DWPeas, a virtual currency used to make trades in the game. A “buzz index” lists the most popular ideas, and a weekly leaderboard email is sent to employees to generate excitement.

Thousands of ideas have been submitted, and those implemented are modest: a new way for employees to reserve conference rooms, or an app that analyses the DWP’s data storage. But altogether, they have improved the efficiency of the department to the tune of £20 million (US $15 million).

Why governments are turning to games

The devoted players of World of Warcraft have collectively spent more than six million years playing the game, all in the hope of earning no more than a “level-up” or a digital sword. Governments around the world are learning to take advantage of the same drive found in these players to motivate or engage employees and citizens with games.

Gamification has proved to be a low-cost way to recapture employees’ attention which, recent studies show, is more crucial than ever. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, nearly three-quarters of state and local government employees in the US are not engaged with their work. In the UK, a 2017 survey found that the longer public servants stay in their position, the less happy they are.

When employees enjoy their work, they are more productive: there’s less turnover, fewer missed days and fewer mistakes. When they don’t, the opposite is true, and operating costs balloon. Finding new ways to get public servants – particularly those who have been in their job for five, 10 or 15 years — excited about work is no easy task, but it could save government a lot of money.

The City of Louisville, Kentucky, for example, was finding it difficult to encourage employees to be more innovative in their work. Ingrained bureaucracy, managers found, was difficult to challenge. But the city changed its culture with a tactic that seems straight out of a kindergarten classroom: it began rewarding public servants for small acts of creativity with digital badges.

Employees can earn these badges by crowdsourcing information from citizens, creating an open dataset or collaborating with other departments on projects. The rewards are small — stickers, access to a multimedia room and LinkedIn recommendations, among others — but they have proved enough to incentivise behaviour change. Uptake has been high across departments and Louisville is adopting a culture of experimentation, said the city’s chief data officer.

The problem with gamification

As the DWP and City of Louisville have proved, gamification can serve as a behavioural “nudge” — a method of influencing behaviour by changing the context in which people make decisions.

But there are challenges to applying game principles to government. For one, the public sector can be resistant to change.

“We had to do a few things to subvert the decision-making process,” said Cotterill, who took a huge risk when pushing upper management to approve Idea Street: his team announced it without authorisation at a major conference for senior DWP staff. “It made it a lot harder for internal organisations to stop it when the Permanent Secretary had already said it was a great idea,” he laughed.

Senior management was primarily concerned that staff would waste too much time on the platform or use it to insult fellow employees — neither of which happened.

Perhaps the more daunting challenge is getting — and keeping — employees on board. Good design can help. Managers should first find out what motivates their team, be it status, access, a desire to be heard, material goods or simply old-fashioned competition. They must also ensure they create a clear system with rules that are easily communicated to players.

But sustaining employees’ attention is hard.

“Gamification should be used very cautiously. Where we ran into problems was trying to maintain levels of interest. You can only give out so many badges before it doesn’t mean anything,” said Cotterill.

Gaming citizen engagement

Gamification isn’t just a tool to engage employees: it can also help government connect with citizens. Integrating games into their experience of public services can improve their relationship with — and trust in — government.

Fields of View (FOV) is a non-profit research group based in Bangalore, India, that uses games and simulations to help local, state and national governments bring citizens into the policymaking process. “One of the huge challenges in policymaking is how to get people to participate in the process — especially vulnerable, marginalised people,” said Sruthi Krishnan, the co-founder of FOV.

In “Map My City”, a game in which citizens build their dream metropolis, citizens get an idea of the trade-offs involved in city-building, and a sense of the challenges government faces as it considers issues like climate change, ageing populations and homelessness. In observing the choices participants make, FOV gathers data, which it turns into quantitative and qualitative research on what people want from their cities.

FOV is not alone. Since 2012, the UN has been using the game Minecraft as a tool for involving people in the design of public spaces from Kosovo to Kenya. Workshops have given 17,000 people — mostly women, young people and the urban poor — a voice in decisions about how to build parks, central squares and sports fields.

Indonesia, meanwhile, uses a game called Translator Gator to create taxonomies of its 300-plus languages. In a country where the official language is the mother tongue of just 7% of the population, the preservation of native languages is key.

Integrating games into citizens’ experience of government can boost engagement. But, as Krishnan warns, they are not a replacement for face-to-face dialogue.

“This is not a silver bullet. It’s not a magic wand that will solve everything for you,” she said. “Not every issue can be tackled with a game or simulation, and it can’t supplant on-the-ground work with people, or raising consciousness of the pressures bureaucrats deal with.”

Cotterill is in agreement: games can help, but public servants need more than that to feel connected to their job. “People need decision-making abilities and to feel they are working toward a higher purpose. That’s the only way to sustain high levels of engagement in government work.”

(Picture credit: Pexels)

Jennifer Guay
jennifer.guay@apolitical.co

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