Solve Complex Governmental and Societal Problems
Communities of Practice
Solve Complex Societal and Governmental Problems
Purpose and Outcomes
Purpose: Government Communities of Practice (CoPs) are designed to help their members reach beyond their agency and other traditional outlets.
CoP members can consult subject-matter experts (SMEs) in government to solve problems, share ideas, develop peer relationships, and build on shared resources. Individual members can fulfill personal and professional goals around a defined topic of interest. Communities of practice allow government to do more with less. Their use is steadily increasing.
When communities of practice are properly cultivated, they grow into dynamic and innovative social structures. While agencies and other groups can initially sponsor and set up a community, the members must define and sustain it over time. Most communities consist of volunteer members who determine the goals, structure, and governance of the community.
By joining one or more of the government CoPs, federal employees can:
- Achieve White House strategic goals through coordinated efforts across the CoP.
- Consult a network of experts at any time
- Improve existing shared services and tools
- Improve shared performance outcomes
- Institutionalize the roles and responsibilities for innovation within agencies
- Provide professional development opportunities for members to enhance or learn new skills
- Reduce costs related to training, shared resources, and professional development
- Use each other’s strengths to produce a mutually beneficial solution
Agencies benefit when their employees join government communities of practice because the CoP can:
- Connect people across the government who might not otherwise be able to
- Inspire new ideas from cross-agency interactions and collaborations
- Build shared solutions by leveraging subject-matter expertise
- Learn from each other in a forum where conversations can produce solutions and provide a network for mentoring and coaching opportunities.
- Share resources and best practices including educational development tools for member knowledge and development.
Actions and Considerations
If you’re deciding whether to start a CoP, ask yourself these questions:
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- Does anyone else in the government have the same problem?
- Is anyone currently working to solve this problem?
- Is a community of practice the ideal way to solve this problem? Should we keep a formal group together for future collaborations?
- Is there a subject-matter expert available to set up and grow the community?
Follow these steps when deciding to setup and maintain a government CoP:
Explore: Identify the audience, purpose, goals, and vision. Reach out to others within a community for lessons learned and shared resources.
Plan: Define the activities, technologies, group processes, and roles that will support the community's goals. Use all the resources and guidance of existing government community of practice hubs such as DigitalGov University.
- Launch: Distribute the new community of practice to the designated government agency and engage all new members with upcoming activities and benefits. Promote the community to other communities.
Grow: Engage members in learning and knowledge-sharing activities, group projects, and networking events to create a cycle of participation and contribution.
- Sustain: Review and assess the knowledge and products created within the community for future strategies, goals, and technologies. Use short surveys to prioritize the next steps.
Successful communities measure their accomplishments on predetermined outcomes, community maturity, or other factors. However, elements of community success such as learning about best practices, knowledge transfer, and building government-wide solutions are intangible and impossible to quantify.
To measure properly, include metrics for both tangible and intangible outcomes, whenever possible. Here are some ways to measure both outcomes:
- Tangible outcomes:
- Number of members, discussions, interactions, posts to a forum, and finished deliverables
- Website analytics (pageviews, returning visitors, file downloads, etc.)
- Social media analytics (if applicable)
- Intangible outcomes:
- Transfer knowledge within the community
- Track the networking of peers and experts to easily answer questions
- Post success stories
If a CoP doesn’t meet your needs, consider joining or creating one of these groups:
|Type||Definition||When to Use|
|Centers of Excellence (CoEs)||A group of people with specialized skills and expertise whose job is to provide leadership and disseminate their knowledge.||When there is a group of SMEs or executives who wish to coach, teach, and mentor for a defined period of time. A CoE can lead to a CoP.|
|Community of Interest||Similar to CoPs but tend to be narrower in scope and have a specific focus.||When there is a specific topic within a bigger community that members want to build out.|
|Guild||An association of craftsmen or merchants who set standards, and pricing, and work to perfect their skills. Guilds were originally started during the Middle Ages.||When a group of people in the same organization or agency want to share best practices, lessons learned, and collaborate on projects.|
|Public-Private Partnership||Collaboration between public and private sectors, typically on a long-term basis.||When there is a need to use members from industry and government to solve problems.|
|Working Group||Group of individuals who collaborate to achieve a specific objective.||When there is an issue or project to solve and there is a defined beginning and end.|
There are currently no direct policies about setting up and managing a government community of practice. As a federal government, consider these recommendations:
- Understand your agency’s policy about using all government equipment.
- Behave online in such a way that you do not bring your agency into disrepute, even if you are not officially representing your agency.
- Do not participate in commercial communications or endorsements.
- Remember all of your email correspondence with the CoP are subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
- Check your current agency policies on managing records. Find more information on the National Archives Records Management Information Page.
Note: If your community includes members of the public (non-government), please review the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) Guide before sending out a survey or other requests for feedback.
Solve Complex Societal and Governmental Problems
Purpose and Outcomes
Purpose: A grand challenge is an ambitious yet achievable goal that solves key problems on a large scale, usually capturing the public's imagination.
It issues a call to action, creating a sense of urgency and possibility that engages the many stakeholders needed to speed up new ways of thinking about the problem and progress towards solving that problem. A pioneering vision, large-scale collaborative effort, and an ambitious, but concrete, target are the defining hallmarks of grand challenges:
- Grand vision: The power of a grand challenge comes from a narrative that shifts the collective conversation. Bold language - like making solar energy as cheap as coal, understanding the human brain, or answering the biggest questions in cancer – changes the question from "Why would we do that?" to "Why aren't we doing that?"
- All hands-on deck: Grand challenges galvanize public excitement and draw in new communities of solvers. A coordinated, all-hands-on-deck approach engages other agencies, foundations, research universities, companies, and citizens. The idea of everyone as an asteroid hunter was a powerful way to involve the public in National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) work. Framing the call as "We can't do this alone; we need you," drew in motivated citizens interested in participating in scientific research (also known as citizen scientists)and experts.
- Ambitious yet achievable target: A grand challenge inspires people to come up with new approaches because they know what you are trying to accomplish. NASA's challenge was to "land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth." The grand vision to "sequence and map all of the genes" guided the Human Genome Project. These targets let the community of solvers ask "what if," removing boundaries to innovative solutions.
Many agencies use grand challenges:
- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)'s Cyber Grand Challenge Final Event brought together top security researchers and hackers to identify cybersecurity flaws.
- The Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative seeks to make solar energy cost competitive with coal by the end of the decade, and NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge aims to find and address all asteroid threats to human populations.
- The U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Grand Challenges for Development address infant and maternal mortality, health supply chains, clean energy for agriculture, water for agriculture, access to off-grid energy, and early grade literacy. They are fighting Ebola, Zika, and future threats.
- The Audacious Goals Initiative at National Institute of Health's National Eye Institute aims to restore eye vision.
See other federal grand challenges at Challenge.gov.
How might we create grand challenges?
You can use many frameworks:
- get an all-in commitment from an agency (like NASA's space program);
- engage matching funds from the private sector;
- announces your commitment framework, and then create space for others to support it;
- commit with external partnerships, but not fund any of the solutions.
Base your agency's commitment, the ways they will support the grand challenge, on many reasons including how they can, in a federal context, engage with other organizations–formally or informally–and which approach is most appropriate for the challenge goal:
- How much control do you want to maintain?
- Do you want to issue this into the world, and let a 501c3 or organizations take it forward?
- Do you want to formally partner with other organizations to help run this?
- Are you contracting with them, or partnering?
At its most basic level, a grand challenge program has three phases:
Phase 1: Problem Definition Phase
Invest time and resources in the problem definition process. Be open-minded to defining and redefining goals. Be prepared to refine your target based on feedback. Define the problem with expert stakeholder input and meaningful engagement by citizen solvers. They help identify the barriers to problem solving, and assess the landscape to understand what sort of call to action is needed. It takes the right problem, right partners, and right activities to catalyze action and create an opportunity to solve problems.
Phase 2: Program Development Phase
Grand challenge programs have these ingredients:
- High-level support and receptiveness to new approaches give grand challenge teams permission to reimagine how they see the problem and who can help solve problems.
- The right team of creative thinkers from within the agency who can see beyond what will happen next year, and look at longer time horizons.
- A set timeframe, typically 5 to 10 years, but up to 20 years, with clear measurable targets and easy-to-track milestones.
- Goals broken into parts so that experts and citizen solvers can contribute in different ways.
- Multi-year planning that aligns with budget cycles, including a plan for implementation, and long-term plans for integrating outcomes from the challenge.
Phase 3: Program Implementation Phase
Like other programs, during implementation you will continually refine to keep pace with new learning, changes in technology, and other factors. In a challenge, focus an engagement strategy on the community of solvers. Use events to encourage progress towards the goal, to find what next steps might be, hear about needs, or share accomplishments. You are building a community based on partnership and engagement from every level, from deep technical experts to motivated citizens. If you want to broaden the community base of problem-solvers, you must have a constant drumbeat of activities and communication.
Actions and Considerations
You have a lot of flexibility in how you set up a grand challenge. Develop one that works best for your agency by using choices about funding levels, the structure of your program, and dividing roles and responsibilities. Below are a few things to consider while working on grand challenges:
- Identify who should be engaged in the early stages of defining the problem.
- Find out how you can use appropriated funds.
- Select a framework to match your agency's commitment.
- Get leadership support and build your agency's team.
- Set goals and targets that balance ambition and feasibility.
- Prepare multi-year budgets and plans for program development and implementation.
- Develop targeted messages for each within the community of solvers.
- American Innovation and Competitiveness Act 2016
- Act expands the use of challenges and gives the authority for any federal government agency to work cooperatively with and pool funds from multiple government agencies, and profit or nonprofit private-sector entities, state, tribal, local or foreign government agencies and higher education institutions.
- America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Reauthorization Act of 2010
- Act passed "to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States." In many places, the Act mandates that each agency cooperate with its partner agencies and offices, and it calls attention to the importance of high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need.
- 15 U.S. Code Chapter 81 - High-Performance Computing § 5503
- Diana Hicks, "Grand Challenges in US Science Policy Attempt Policy Innovation," International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy, 2016.
- Provides an overview of the evolution of Grand Challenges outside and within the federal government.
- Fourteen Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century
- From the National Academy of Engineering, this article covers four cross-cutting themes: sustainability, health, security, and joy of living.
- Grand Challenges
- Funded by USAID, Government of Canada, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is a family of initiatives fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems.
- National Science Foundation, "A Report of the National Science Foundation Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure Task Force on Grand Challenges," March 2011.
- Looks at how the grand challenge framework is used to advance discoveries in computer science and engineering.
- U.S. Global Development Lab, "Tools for Innovation Programming: Step 1: Identify & Define the Problem."