What can Barack Obama's digital adviser teach the civil service about talent hunting?

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 29 March 2016 in Feature
Feature

A new book by Beth Simone Noveck – a former open-government adviser to both US president Barack Obama and prime minister David Cameron – contains useful lessons for the civil service on finding the right expertise

The internet has given anyone with access to a computer and web connection a platform to share their skills, interests, and views with the world – and for the world to return the favour. But government is not yet making the most of the web’s power to maximise the expertise it can draw upon, according to expert Beth Simone Noveck.

Noveck, who has served as Barack Obama's deputy chief technology officer and as prime minister David Cameron's senior advisor for open government, argues that government can make more use of the kind of online credentialing systems employed by websites such as eBay, Amazon and LinkedIn to source expert advice and support from both within and outside its staff pool.

In her new book The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing, Noveck says that while government today gets expertise from many sources, “it is often difficult to find the right expertise quickly enough and early enough”.

 


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“The internet is radically decreasing the costs of identifying diverse forms of expertise and segmenting audiences on the basis of credentials, experiences, skills, and interests,” she says. “New technologies of expertise, like expert networks, are multiplying the number and type of expertise, including skills and experiences, that can be systematically searched.”

Noveck’s book draws on a wealth of experience, both reported by others and directly witnessed in her White House-backed “ExpertNet” project, which sought to create new platforms that would match public expertise to opportunities to participate. 

Below are four examples taken from her book, showing how different public bodies have used – and are using – technology to improve the way they find experts within and outside of their organisations:

US Department of Defence
In the fall of 2008, the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) piloted Aristotle, a first-of-its-kind government expert search and discovery software platform. The software utilises computer programs with associated algorithms that make it easier to sort and find people using criteria such as reputation, credentials, skills, and experience. 

The hope was that Aristotle, by increasing awareness of both credentialed knowledge and relevant experience, could improve collaboration and problem solving across the DoD. The military described it as a “revolutionary tool to pull together multi-directorate expertise to tackle urgent warfighter needs.”

In practice, Aristotle was a searchable internal directory that algorithmically integrated people’s credentials and experience from existing personnel systems and public databases, and from users themselves, thus making it easy to discover quickly who knew what and who had done what.

By enabling greater use of in-house expertise, Aristotle was believed to be capable of saving government money over them long term. But budgetary constraints killed the project in 2013.

Ultimately, the real disappointment of Aristotle lay not in its sun-setting but in the failure of government to recognize that targeting [expertise] could improve the capacity of an organisation. The project could have yielded powerful insights about the value of a system for collaboration… it might have shown whether searching for and targeting people based on their expertise, rather than simply posting an open call for engagement, does more to improve participatory and collaborative problem solving across a bureaucracy. 

The Food and Drug Administration 
In 2014, the FDA introduced expert net-working tools akin to Aristotle to find needed expertise within the agency and won a $350,000 internal government competition in 2015 to expand their use across the whole FDA, and subsequently the Department of Health and Human Services, to improve the regulatory review of medical devices. The FDA has also embraced the use of experimentation testing alternatives – as it develops this new program, called Experts.gov.

As of this writing, the FDA is ready to begin staffing some medical device review panels using the new software. Other device review panels will be constituted through the traditional pro cess of calling around. The goal of these experiments is to yield real-time results that demonstrate whether and how targeting participation improves the outcomes of regulatory review.

World Bank
The World Bank started keeping track of the skills of its quasi-public servants via a web- based platform called SkillFinder in 2014. By combining highly structured institutional records such as human resources data about credentials with free- form user narratives and tagging and third party endorsements, SkillFinder tracks specialisation, work and project experience, languages spoken, publications, and other expertise for its sixteen thousand employees, consultants, and staff. 

Although originally intended to help staff identify internal peer reviewers, in its first year people are primarily using the tool to search those they know within their own departments, identifying skills gaps and strengths in order to inform plans for reorganisation.

eGovernance Lab, New York University 
The Governance Lab at New York University has started the Network Innovators (NoI). NoI is a mobile application collaboratively designed and developed by the GovLab in partnership with governance innovation leaders across seven countries, including Mexico, Chile, South Australia, and the United Kingdom. 

The tool makes the know-how of government innovators on such topics as open data, prize-backed challenges, and crowdsourcing within and across governments searchable. 

By answering questions about one’s governance innovation skills and experiences, the app creates a profile for the user, matching her to those with complementary knowledge – either those who are similar or different – to enable mutual support and learning. NoI looks beyond traditional credentials to capture indicia of real world skills. 

However, instead of rigid categories or open-ended tags, Network of Innovators attempts to get at what people know by asking them the kinds of questions they could and would like to answer. In response to a series of questions, they can specify what kind of expertise they have and want to share: whether they have the ability to do something, to tell someone about it, or to refer them to others knowledgeable about topic.

From Network of Innovators, it is a small step to envision expert networking on policy topics across departments or even internationally.

Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing by Beth Simone Noveck is published by Harvard University Press, £22.95

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is CSW's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 12 April, 2016 - 19:17
Whatever technology or system you have, if you do not have the right HR/recruitment people utilising the technology, you will never get good results. Rubbish into the system, rubbish out. Technology is not the answer. The answer is to focus much much less on developing inexperienced Fast Streamers who know nothing about the world. Focus more on the development of TRULY talented deserving staff who have worked hard and have shown their merit. Technology is just a tool. It does not have a brain and won't tell you the obvious facts that straight talking people like me will tell you.

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