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Need A Job Done, But Don’t Have the Right Staff – The State Department Has a Solution

Young Government Leaders (YGL) and GovLoop present the NextGen Public Service Awards for superior public service and achievement. The 4th Annual NextGen Public Service Awards will be given at the 2014 NextGen Award’s Ceremony, which will kick off the NextGen Training Summit on July 23rd in Washington, DC. We have 18 finalists in six different categories. All month long we will be introducing you to the finalists.

Who: Matt Chessen, Senior Innovation Advisor in the Office of Key Diplomacy, State Department.

Achievement: NextGen Public Service Award, Exemplary Group Category

“Every element of the CrowdWork project was aimed at the widest possible collaboration, coordination, and open design and development. This project tapped into the dedication of a group of both general and technical experts working to build a tool that will greatly enhance productivity and tap into unused human capacity within State and other departments that may use it. Matt and the team gathered requirements and engaged in outreach across the Department and interagency, which required integrating the needs and opinions of various Department bureaus and multiple interagency partners.” –Christian Bendsen, Chief, Knowledge Leadership Division, State Department. Bendsen nominated CrowdWork for the Exemplary Group Category.

Do you have a shopping list of tasks at your office? Work that needs to get done, but no one with the right skill set to do the job. Now there is a solution at the State Department. The CrowdWork team created an internal marketplace for foreign affairs work that will facilitate collaborative work worldwide within the department, and match State Department opportunities and requirements with untapped skills and experience

The program came out of a problem the State Department was having within its human resources department.

“We have a lot of entry level officers who come into the Foreign Service, they have a lot of skills; they generally have Master’s degrees, probably even a previous career, but they spend a lot of their first few years in the Foreign Service doing counselor work, basically adjudicating visas,” said Chessen.

Foreign officers need to get other experiences, especially if they’re a political officer or an economic officer, in order to get promoted and tenured in their career. “A lot a times those opportunities aren’t available in a large quantity at the embassy where they are stationed,” said Chessen. “HR wanted some sort of way for any office or mission throughout the State Department to put out tasks that they need help with. All the extra things they just don’t have time to do, for areas where they don’t have the right skillset in their office, and then they post out those out on CrowdWork, and then any foreign service officer, really any department employee, can go and respond to those tasks. “

CrowdWork provides those entry level offices who are doing maybe two, three or four years of counselor work the opportunity to get those outside experiences in their common specialty.

“What’s sort of interesting about it, where it’s quite innovative, is we actually developed CrowdWork from an open source tool called Midas. Midas was developed as open source so the entire government could us it,” said Chessen. “It’s not just a State Department proprietary system – it’s something that any department or agency within the government, and really any organization outside of government, can use for their crowd ourcing and professional development pieces.”

But Midas and CrowdWork weren’t built in a day, and they weren’t even built by colleagues in the same room – they were assembled with remote collaboration. “The collaboration was actually really challenging. We didn’t have enough resources to accomplish the mission that we had in mind for this tool. We did a lot of scrounging, we used some interns, we used a job-sourcing program inside the State Department to find some people to help with the project. It was also challenging because we did most of our collaboration remotely,” said Chessen. “You’re only working with maybe three or four of the 10 or 12 people on your team in-person.”

One of the ways the group learned to collaborate remotely was to use GitHub as a landing tool. “We were one of the pioneers in the State Department of using GitHub to do this remote collaboration on this collaborative development platform,” said Chessen. “GitHub is sort of a social network and version control system for software development. But that really helped us have one focused place where we could actually collaborate and coordinate, even though we weren’t necessarily always in the same physical space.”

This novel approach, using GitHub as a collaboration platform, allowed State to benefit from additional features developed by other agencies. And whereas proprietary software would only be usable by State, this is one of the first USG open source tools to be adopted by other agencies (adopted by HHS and soon DoD, GSA and the VA).

Every element of this project was aimed at the widest possible collaboration, coordination, and open design and development. Chessen and the team gathered requirements and engaged in outreach across the Department and interagency, which required integrating the needs and opinions of various Department bureaus and multiple interagency partners.

What does Chessen think is the biggest misconception about government? “I think one of the biggest misconceptions about government is that government workers are overpaid, underworked, and sort of have soft and cushy jobs. That has certainly not been in my experience. Personally I’ve served in three very difficult places; Liberia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”

“The people I worked with were putting their lives on the line and worked 60, 70- hours a day for seven days a week trying to accomplish our mission. They’re certainly not doing it for the financial incentive, they’re doing it because they believe in the mission. Unfortunately the people who characterize government workers do a lot to undermine and demoralize those people who are there because they actually believe in what we’re doing.”

Chessen noted that the mission of government work is very noble, in his opinion. “I actually came from the private sector. I was working in technology, and I found that I really just wasn’t making a difference in the type of way that I wanted to. I was making money for my corporation and other corporations and building websites for them, but I really didn’t feel like I was contributing to sort of the overall community in the way that I wanted. I’ve always had a deep passion in foreign affairs, and I felt like the State Department and the Foreign Service was really a way for me to express that passion. I’ve been able to make a difference in a much greater scale than I would have been able to in the private sector.”

We will be talking to all the NextGen Public Service Award finalists in the upcoming weeks. See the full list here. And register for NextGen!

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