The Smarter State: How Public Agencies are Using the Technologies of Expertise to Engage with Civil Servants

This article was also published at this link on medium.com.

On September 13th 2017, the GovLab hosted an online conference with participants representing six public institutions from around the world to learn about how they are using what we call “the technologies of expertise,” including expert and social networks and other “people analytics” software, to engage with civil servants, tap into their expertise and expertise and take advantage of what people know to work differently.

In early 2016, the GovLab published a series of case studies examining how public institutions around the world use technologies of expertise to better leverage the skills of their own employees. This web conference checked in with four of those platforms we previously profiled to learn whether they are having an impact and share their learnings about what works and what doesn’t with those in Canada, who are setting up their own platform, and those in the UK, who are exploring in the wake of Brexit how to manage knowledge in the public sector more effectively.

Among the participants were representatives from the EPA’s Skills Marketplace, the Office of Management and Budget’s max.gov, the World Bank’s Skillfinder, the HHS’ FDA Profiles, the government of Canada’s Talent Cloud as well as colleagues from the UK Ministry of Defence. Full list of participants is here.

Screenshot from the conference call in 2017

Participants from the online conference in September 2017. T-L: Valerie Thomas and team (Talent Cloud in Canada). T-R: James King (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). B-L: Beth Noveck (The GovLab). B-R: Pascal Saura (The World Bank). Not pictured: Noha Gaber (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce), Mark Hill (Ministry of Defense in the United Kingdom), Phil Wenger and Brendan O’Meara (U.S. Office of Management and Budget) and Philip Rogiers (Vlerick Business School). Photo credit: The GovLab

Takeaways

Complete notes from the conference are available here but there were three key takeaways from the discussion.

  1. Technologies of expertise have helped improve employee engagement and to break down traditional organizational silos

“Of the nearly 500 cases the platform (SkillFinder)handles, 55% had to do with finding the right person to debug an issue” — Pascal Saura, Senior Knowledge Management Officer at The World Bank

In every case, the platforms showed that using these platforms helped employees solve problems faster and helped managers staff projects more easily. At the World Bank, for example, a study conducted 3 years ago by the Finance and Partnership Development unit established that it takes 3 phone calls to get to the right person in the bank. Using the SkillFinder platform brought that down to 1 phone call. Of the nearly 500 cases the platform handles, Pascal Saura, Senior Knowledge Management Officer at The World Bank explained, 55% had to do with finding the right person to debug an issue. The EPA’s Skills Marketplace allows participants to work on projects in a different part of the agency for up to 20% of their time. The Skills Marketplace model, which connected managers looking to staff projects with employees looking to work on part-time projects, has been so successful, it now operates under a larger, agency-wide initiative, EPA Talent Hub, for career-development opportunities and is no longer limited to part-time projects.   

2. The success of the platform is not dependent solely on the tech

Noha Gaber, former program manager of the EPA’s Skills Marketplace (and presently Chief of Staff at NOAA), pointed out that while a user-friendly tool is critical, it is equally important for managers to feel comfortable with these new ways of working and to have a robust strategy to facilitate the transition from traditional methods of working. The EPA Skills Marketplace changes how the agency works by breaking silos and enabling employees to find projects to work on from outside their own departments and by enabling managers to staff new projects with employees from other departments who have the relevant skills.

A bottom-up approach is also important to ensure the success of the platform. For GovConnect, the government-wide initiative that built on the EPA Skills Marketplace, says Ms Gaber, “Instead of setting up LinkedIn for government, we encouraged each agency to set up a system for themselves to achieve local buy-in and familiarity and then we would work to scale it up across government”.

3. The challenge of populating employee profiles

Completed profiles including information about experience, skills and projects are crucial to connect the right people using these tools. But one of the hurdles some platforms have faced is to convince employees and managers to complete their profiles. The Skills Marketplace at the EPA, for example, requires employees to complete their profile prior to applying for a project that interests them on the platform. EPA designers complemented this requirement with training videos, demonstrations, webinars on how to update profiles to encourage employees to do it themselves.

Similarly in Canada, the Talent Cloud, a platform created by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat to enable project based staffing by creating a “repository of talent”, requires that users fill in their profiles once when they apply for a job and the system connects them with the right job. Alternatively, including profile completion as part of the on-boarding process is another method that can be used to explain the value of the platform and get employees to fill in their profile or notifying employees when someone looks at their information creates an incentive for them to maintain an updated profile.

Others, have focussed on automating this process by using existing HR, grants and publications databases to populate an employee’s profile. But as James King, NIH Library Branch Chief pointed out, it is important to identify the markers of expertise first. The data sources that can be used to identify the skills of a researcher will be different from those to identify the skills of a program officer or those of a manager. Another concern with auto-population is disambiguation- how do does one differentiate two people with the same names? One possible solution is to design with easy-to-use protocols for employees to mark that the system has identified them erroneously.

The Smarter State Case Studies explore the design and key features of 14 platforms from around the world; how they are being implemented; the challenges encountered by both creators and users and the anticipated impact of these new ways of working. The Smarter State case studies covered four types of online platforms:

  • Talent Bank – Professional, social and knowledge networks
  • Collaboration – Platforms for group work across silos
  • Project Platforms – Places for inviting new participants to work on projects
  • Toolkits – Repositories for shared content

You can read the case studies at thegovlab.org/smarterstate.html.

To share a case study, please contact: anirudh@thegovlab.org

About The GovLab

The GovLab’s mission is to improve people’s lives by changing how we govern. Our goal is to strengthen the ability of institutions – including but not limited to governments – and people to work more openly, collaboratively, effectively and legitimately to make better decisions and solve public problems. For more information, please visit: thegovlab.org.

About Smarter State

New tools—what GovLab calls technologies of expertise— are making it possible to match the supply of citizen expertise to the demand for it in government.  Smarter State is a GovLab initiative to design and test how public decision-making could improve if institutions knew how to use the technologies of expertise to tap the wisdom of citizens’ and civil servants. It is premised on the idea that just as individuals use only part of their brainpower to solve most problems, governing institutions make far too little use of the skills and experience of those inside and outside of government with scientific credentials, practical skills, and ground-level street smarts. New data-rich tools are making it possible to match the supply of citizen and civil servant talent to the demand for it in government to solve problems. For more information, please visit: smarterstate.org/.