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3 Lessons Hawaii Learned from Gamifying Government

Government work is serious business – but it doesn't have to be a no-fun, no-thrill zone for consumers.

by Sonny Bhagowalia, former CIO, Hawaii / November 21, 2014

“A no-fun, no-thrill zone for consumers” – that’s a common perception of government. And at times, it may be accurate. When I became Hawaii’s first CIO in 2011, for instance, the state’s 30- to 40-year legacy technology definitely needed an energetic boost. Limited numbers of government services were online, use of online services was in some cases low, the consumer experience was lacking and, in general, the state’s technology was way behind the times.  

Gov. Neil Abercrombie hired me to modernize and make Hawaii’s government technology the best in the nation. We partnered with our state portal provider, NIC subsidiary Hawaii Information Consortium, and turned government IT upside down by adding gamification, long before the term "gamification" was in vogue.

While gamification incorporates elements like points, leaderboards and more, our primary focus was on citizen engagement. Some online services had 75 percent adoption rates, while others lagged at 15 percent – and both services had the same user groups. Our view of gamification was to provide government services on the people’s terms and place government interactions on par with the way citizens conduct business in other areas of their lives. Gamification was a way for us to make government less intimidating and more accessible.

Early on, we incorporated gamification into the state’s Business One-Stop service. This online service helps entrepreneurs start and expand businesses in Hawaii and brings together information from several agencies into one, convenient online resource. We added a progress meter to Business One-Stop that shows entrepreneurs the stages they reach in completing the required information.

The effort quickly expanded. Today, the state’s Web portal includes More than 450,000 public users are registered for this personal dashboard, which shows their interactions with state government. The site provides one location that tracks all of an individual’s online payments. It provides businesses real-time filings information, a source for monitoring state procurement status and direct access to the Professional and Vocational Licensing site (myPVL).

At the heart of is a single sign-on. Individuals can input one username and password to access several areas of the state portal. The technology allows sharing credentials and permissions across 13 state agency applications so that all of an individual’s interactions with state government can be recorded in one place. We used a points system to quantify how much time, paper and miles each person saves by conducting government transactions online. Since May 2014, we know that for the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs alone, registered users have saved more than 50,000 sheets of paper, 32,000 days and thousands of driven miles. followed, the White House Innovation Fellows program launched in 2013. This initiative was about simplifying citizens’ access to federal government information, which means information was pulled together and, rather than being organized by a federal agency, was organized by how citizens interact with the federal government. We watched this initiative unfold and learned from their best practices as we built

And we learned plenty from incorporating gamification into Hawaii’s online government services:

1. Increased Engagement

We know this effort is engaging more citizens. As linked myPVL with the same accounts used for business registrations, online adoptions for each subsequent business license renewal cycle improved. Some are now close to 90 percent. Online annual business filings also have improved, with adoption rising from 75 percent to 85 percent.

2. Breaking Down Silos

Gamification brought our government agencies together. The reality of state government is that business processes and functions tend to take place in agency silos. With gamification, one department’s online use of a particular service benefited from the same users going online to use a service from a closely related agency. 

3. Changed Business Practices

Gamification truly changed the way we do business – online versus waiting in line. No longer were we internally focused. Rather, we used technology and presented information in consumer-focused ways while providing a better online experience. It often changed how we thought about innovation and the state’s technology in general. 

Our private partner demonstrated they were up to the task of helping us implement gaming elements across the portal, and we trusted them. I acknowledge the superb job done by Karen Higa, who runs, and NIC's Russell Castagnaro for their management of the portal program, which has garnered much national recognition over three years as being the best for today's open and digital government. 

We have to give ideas and innovation a chance. My motto is, “You won’t succeed if you don’t try. Therefore, it is OK to fail as long as you fail fast, learn, recover and move forward with a better way.”

In Hawaii, I’m glad we put gamification to work for our state portal and online government services. It has brought the people closer to government – their government – and that is a good thing.

Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia, recently named CIO of the U.S. Treasury Department, was the governor’s chief advisor for Technology and Cyber Security for the State of Hawaii from February to October 2014. He served as the state’s first CIO from 2011 to 2014, when the state’s portal was launched and when “gamification” was incorporated into the state’s official Web portal and online government services. 


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