DesignDevelopmentGovernmentInnovations
June 13, 2016

Gamification: Public Health Agency of Canada’s Winning Strategy

“Government has been slow in adopting approaches like crowdsourcing and social media to actively push policy objectives.” “One of the goals of the Play Exchange was to develop a pipeline of ‘investable’ ideas that can be implemented to help make Canadians healthier.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada has long been aware of the threat inactivity and unhealthy lifestyle choices present to the well-being of Canadians. It is now scientifically established that childhood obesity left unchecked will lead to serious chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular ailments. The policy problem is that prevention programs, as well as conventional methods of project funding, have failed to effectively promote healthier and active living across Canada.

Clearly, it was time rethink the customary ways of developing and funding programs. So in 2014, the PHAC took a different tack. Moving away from the tried-and-true methods, it launched “The Play Exchange” (TPX), a national competition that applied strategies such as crowdsourcing and social media to identify new ideas and approaches for promoting physical activity, healthier eating, and reducing smoking.

In doing so, the PHAC was hoping to tap into a wellspring of ideas from Canadians and to generate conversation across the country about the benefits of a healthier lifestyle. “We knew that investing in upstream prevention like being active and eating well is what’s needed to stem the wave of chronic diseases that will have a profound impact in our healthcare system and society in the years to come,” says Rodney Ghali, director general of the Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention at PHAC. “Government has been slow in adopting approaches like crowdsourcing and social media to actively push policy objectives.”

TPX was designed to change all that. PHAC describes it as a “paradigm shift” in how it fundamentally conducts business. PHAC morphed overnight into a major commercial media broadcaster—a fundamentally different approach compared to how government agencies normally carried out an awareness campaign.

The idea was to create a nation-wide competition. Ghali stresses that the Play Exchange was conceived from the very beginning to be “as non-bureaucratic as possible” because the PHAC wanted “real innovation.” Project design and operation was completely outside of traditional government processes.

TPX was launched on a live broadcast on CBC/SRC during the 2014 Winter Olympics broadcast, ensuring that it reach an audience of millions because it was done in prime time. Canadians were asked to submit nominations for the best examples of healthy living programs. The idea was to actively engage Canadians, and challenge them to come up with ideas on how to promote healthier living. Individuals, schools, families, not-for-profit organizations, and businesses could enter the competition. There was a strong incentive: $20,000 for each of the finalists from LIFT to fund the development of business plans, and a grand prize of a $1 million for the winner.

A panel of judges pruned the submitted ideas to six finalists and celebrities from various fields of endeavor were recruited to champion each of the ideas. They were showcased via social media outlets like YouTube and Canadians were asked to choose the winner.

The presentation of the six finalists and the announcement of the contest winner were made in a broadcast on the CBC in January, 2015.
The ideas and their corresponding celebrity advocates were (they can all be found on YouTube by typing in “The Play Exchange”:

  • GOODcoins: An app that rewarded users for making healthy decisions by awarding them “coins” that can be exchanged for prizes. The idea was promoted by Scott McGillivray, host of reality TV show “Income Property.”
  • Healthy Schools:  A program that prompts children to make their own healthy decisions in every facet of their lives. The advocate was Trish Stratus, former WWE star.
  • Prescription to Get Active: A program that encouraged doctors to write prescriptions for their patients in order to access fitness facilities and equipment at no cost. The star supporter for this idea was Jessica Holmes, actor and comedian.
  • Sharing Dance: A website from the National Ballet School that encouraged activity through dance by offering free access to the school’s talents online. The promoter of this idea was Patrick Chan, Canadian skating celebrity.
  • Trottibus: An alternative to the traditional school bus that sees children walking to school together in large groups, encouraging exercise and road safety. The champion for that idea was Chantal Petitclerc, the 14-time Paralympic gold medalist.
  • Walk to Tuk: A project that challenged residents of the Northwest Territories to walk the equivalent of the distance of the Mackenzie River by walking within their own neighbourhoods and tracking their progress. That idea was promoted by Wab Kinew, host of CBC’s radio program “Canada Reads 2015.”

Trottibus was declared the winner and the idea, backed by the Canadian Cancer Society, received the $1 million prize. The program is now being adopted in many schools across the country.

PHAC also came out a winner. “One of the goals of the Play Exchange was to develop a pipeline of ‘investable’ ideas that can be implemented to help make Canadians healthier,” according to Hartnell. “More than 400 ideas were submitted.” The PHAC can now mine all the entries for potential projects.

TPX also helped PHAC raise public awareness to the issue of healthy living: the nationally televised program reached more than 300,000 viewers, nearly 80,000 votes were cast across the country for the winning idea, the TPX Web site generated 280,000 page views, and 6,210 tweets were made during the voting week. Beyond these, TPX helped PHAC transition to a new way of doing business.

“The initiative demonstrated that the federal government can be innovative in using program levers to advance a policy objective, but this is only the beginning of what we can accomplish,” according to PHAC. “The concept of ‘challenges’ like TPX across other social and economic policy domains holds great promise as a social innovation tool that can achieve greater impact.” The Play Exchange (TPX) was one the finalists in the 2015 the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC)/IBM Innovative Management Awards.

About this author

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Nestor Arellano

Nestor is a Toronto-based journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business. He is the editor of Vanguard Magazine and the associate editor of IT in Canada and a regular contributor to CGE.

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