Federal agencies take citizen engagement to new level

Federal agencies take citizen engagement to new level

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The federal government has a long history of working directly with citizens to solve problems.

That history, which has run parallel to our nation’s story since founding, should be celebrated and expanded by including citizens in the problem-solving process every chance we get.

Federal employees recently gathered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to discuss new recommendations for how to make that happen.

In its “Strategic Recommendations for Advancing U.S. Federal Policies, Programs and Partnerships,” the Wilson Center offered its blueprint for building upon a grassroots movement that began years ago and continues to gain momentum in forming policies, resources, and networks devoted to public engagement and open forms of innovation.

Among its approaches for carrying this energy into the future, the Wilson Center cited the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as key drivers in advancing the government’s citizen science and crowdsourcing efforts.

GSA has worked closely with OSTP and the Wilson Center to spearhead efforts to enhance public participation in government research and innovation.

Earlier this year this partnership launched CitizenScience.gov, a central hub that houses a catalog of citizen science and crowdsourcing projects, as well as an extensive toolkit, a library of resources, and a listing of key federal community members. The CitizenScience.gov portal is designed to help the federal workforce expand its solutions base through crowdsourcing, an approach to innovation where ideas or services are solicited from a large group of individuals, and citizen science, which simply describes public participation in the scientific research process.

Whether agencies crowdsource problems through Challenge.gov, a repository of incentivized prize challenges, or invite citizens to participate in scientific research, these efforts help us all better understand our society and the world we inhabit.

Citizens, including young students, have taken on everything from monitoring mosquitos carrying the Zika virus to helping determine the disease behind the mysterious deaths of oak trees in the San Francisco area.

About 80,000 volunteers participated in 116 BioBlitzes this year by monitoring species in our National Parks. More than 20,000 more across the nation are monitoring water quality and collecting real-time rain, hail, and snow data.

The list goes on and on, and there are currently more than 300 federally sponsored projects open to public participation in the catalog on CitizenScience.gov.

Experts are committed to growing these efforts across the federal government.

Indeed, those in attendance at the event represented a wide range of agencies and fields — biomedical research, land use, space, intelligence, and defense, even the private sector.

The Wilson Center’s recommendations cover policy, law, collaboration among federal agencies, and public-private partnerships. They also call for continued support from both OSTP and GSA, where we are working to establish dedicated staffing and web development resources for CitizenScience.gov and all of its components, including ongoing support for the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science.

This community gathers regularly to share resources, methods, and ideas. The group started three years ago with five members and has grown to more than 300 federal employees from 59 government organizations.

Coordinators were established at several agencies in response to a White House memo issued last year that outlined specific actions the government could take to address societal and scientific challenges through citizen science and crowdsourcing.

These coordinators keep the project catalog updated, but they also are positioned to facilitate discussion, initiatives, and community building among different agencies, which is another recommendation offered by the Wilson Center.

But no citizen science or crowdsourcing project can happen without the public.

It is something seen at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), where volunteers assist with field measurements, sample collection, data compilation, and follow-on monitoring to strengthen land-use planning.

One of the Wilson Center’s recommendations calls for agencies to include citizen engagement in their overall priority areas and strategic plans, something BLM already does.

The bureau even has launched a pilot program to establish coordinators in various field offices to enlist the help of citizens in applied science on the ground, an effort that could benefit digs to uncover dinosaur fossils and cultural artifacts.

GSA and our partners will continue to work so that citizen engagement is a tool that any agency can apply to any problem.

We will also work closely with the White House, the Wilson Center, our fellow federal agencies, and those outside of government to ensure we keep the American people informed, involved, and incentivized to help us address important issues.

It is also why we urge federal employees to read through the recommendations from the Wilson Center and to discuss them both within your agency and with other organizations inside and outside of government.

The more people we reach out to, the more help we receive, the more ideas we generate, and the more we can accomplish.

Kelly Olson is the acting director of the GSA Technology Transformation Service’s Innovation Portfolio. She manages a variety of programs focused on open innovation and citizen engagement across the federal government, including Challenge.gov and CitizenScience.gov.

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