The Innobucks Start Here

A small Texas town has turned civic participation into an online game, complete with virtual currency.
April 2010
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

When Beth Noveck, leader of President Barack Obama's Open Government Initiative, needed an example of how technology can create more collaborative government, she pointed to Manor, Texas, a tiny city on the outskirts of Austin. Speaking to Web 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly at a conference in late 2009, Noveck made a point of mentioning Manor Labs, the city's online effort to harvest bright ideas from citizens.

"Manor--population 5,800--is crowdsourcing better ideas for how to run the town, whether it's dog catching or tax collection," Noveck says. "I now want to go to Manor, Texas. When I see things like that, it's incredibly exciting and heartening to me."

Manor Labs is the brainchild of Dustin Haisler, the town's assistant city manager, CIO and one-man IT department. Here's how it works: Citizens go to a Web site,, to submit proposals and vote ideas up or down. Participants earn 5,000 points for submitting an idea, 150 for commenting and 300,000 if the city implements their idea. Points, known as innobucks, can be spent on police ride-alongs, meals donated by local restaurants or a chance to serve as mayor for a day. City officials evaluate the suggestions, and every decision is made in plain view on the site.

"The crowd is wise, in our opinion. We want to harness that wisdom and allow them to help us in the process," Haisler says. That's not just lip service. Since its launch in October 2009, the site collected almost 100 ideas, five of which have been formally adopted.

The city partnered with Stanford University to create Manor Labs. Haisler made contacts at the university during another innovative project that put bar codes on the town's landmarks and city structures. The bar codes, which can be read by a cell phone with the appropriate free software, are used to track city assets and promote the town for economic development purposes.

Haisler may have had help from high-powered advisers, but he says Manor Labs relies on cheap, readily available software tools--and it includes idea management capabilities and other features that reduce the small city staff's workload.

"We wanted to use this as an opportunity to show other agencies that if we can do it in Manor, which has only 35 full-time city employees, then anyone can do it," he says. "We wanted to kind of break that misconception that innovation is very complex. We wanted to break it into a smaller scale and say, 'We did it.'"

Haisler's boss, City Manager Phil Tate, says Manor Labs helps fill a void in the community. As the town grew, club meetings and other social gatherings that once gave citizens a chance to rub elbows with city leaders evaporated. Now that interaction is starting to occur online.

Tate also wouldn't mind if the notoriety surrounding Manor Labs caught the attention of potential high-tech employers. "We definitely hope this draws if not a major computer tech firm, at least some of the secondary-level companies into town, and makes Manor more oriented to that."