What if one of the keys to curing cancer is stuck in the mind of someone who doesn’t traditionally have the means to share their knowledge? Or what if a farmer has the potential to advance the nation’s space program? Traditionally, the government has not looked outside the walls of bureaucracy to solve the problems they face. However, one govie has taken it upon herself to break out of this tradition.
Jenn Gustetic is the Small Business Innovation Research Program Executive at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). However, up until recently, she was the Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology. Gustetic sat down with Christopher Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER to discuss how she brings the public into public service.
Gustetic’s work at Open Innovation won her a finalist spot in the Call to Service category for the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America Medals, or the SAMMIES—a prestigious public sector award that recognizes the innovative work of government employees. Gustetic has answered the call to service by turning back to the public and utilizing crowd sourcing to solve critical public sector problems.
Gustetic explained that crowd sourcing means exactly what it sounds like. “Essentially, it is sourcing solutions from a crowd that is more than the usual suspects that you work with in the government,” she said. This can be done in a variety of different ways but the most popular are incentive prizes and challenges. There is also the concept of citizen science. This is a more collaborative and less competitive effort where citizens go out and aim to solve a problem or add to problem solving efforts by completing a task.
To give a little more context to the two types of crowd sourcing Gustetic emphasized that, "with prizes and challenges, you usually see a financial award and there’s a clear winner of the competition.” However, for citizen science there is usually not a financial incentive and individuals work together instead of against each other. An example of citizen science is a group of citizens getting together to go out bird watching. The citizens then identify different bird species and classify the images on their computers. They then give this data to the agency they are working with so meaning can be made from it.
While crowd sourcing is an often untapped well of innovative potential, many agencies have been hesitant to embrace it. This is partly due to those inside the government fearing that crowd sourcing is going to make their position less necessary. However, Gustetic assured that crowd sourcing tools do not take away from government talent but empower it. “It is really just diversifying the sources of problem solving and helping the engineers, scientists, technologists and program people inside the government get more bang for their buck in innovation,” she explained.
The positive effects of crowd sourcing were recently seen in the response to the Ebola virus. Gustetic explained that one of the observations made about the working conditions of those combatting Ebola was that the personal protective equipment hadn’t been innovated in decades. In order to foster innovation, Gustetic and her team engaged industry people as well as individuals facing similar problems in other industries to brainstorm solutions. Gustetic emphasized, “through this open innovation, incredible innovations were identified to brighten the future manufacturing of personal protective equipment.
The Innovation Toolkit is another way to optimize open innovation. Gustetic explained that it is a two-part toolkit to optimize crowd sourcing and citizen science efforts. Launched last September, the first part of the tool kit is a website that enables federal govies to use more innovative approaches through step-by-step guidance on how to develop and implement open innovation programs. The second part of the program will be released in the upcoming fall and focuses more on the prizes and challenges aspect of open innovation. Gustetic underscored, “the point of these toolkits is to try to document knowledge in an easy to access way so that federal employees can empower themselves to use these tools themselves.”
Despite the gains open innovation efforts have made in the past few years, there are still a lot of challenges in this realm of innovation. One of the most significant ones is getting the citizens involved in the crowd sourcing to begin with. Gustetic explained, “open innovation is more of an art than a science, just because you have a prize doesn’t mean you are going to automatically attract thousands of people interested in your prize.”
However, for Gustetic the challenges surrounding open innovation are largely outweighed by the rearwards. She explained, “the government has such a powerful place as a convener and a bellybutton for so many incredibly difficult problems that our world faces.” If you take risks in the government you are understanding different perspectives and trying to unlock solutions to difficult problems. Gustetic concluded, “I can’t imagine something that’s a more compelling case for working for the government than solving these big problems. It’s what keeps me excited about working here and keeps me coming back for more.”
The SAMMIE’s are only a month away! Get to know the other fantastic finalists before the ceremony. We think all of the finalists are awesome but if you have a favorite be sure to vote for them in the People’s Choice Award.