Today, software and digital tools evolve so quickly it is impossible for everyone to know how to do everything. When someone has an idea for how to improve a system or workflow, sometimes they need help making it a reality.
Such was the case for Melody Kramer, a communications specialist with General Services Administration's 18F who described herself as "a pretty decent coder."
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"I've worked primarily in Python. But it's not my full-time job, so coding something would take me a really long time compared to someone who does it as their job," Kramer said. "And I've never made an extensive project within Google Sheets, though I think I could muddle my way through one slowly using documentation. However, it would be much easier to work with someone who is fluent in this medium."
Enter Open Opportunities, a relatively young portal where federal employees can collaborate and ask for assistance developing new ideas for their agency or program office.
"We were looking at the whole concept of micro-volunteering and how that might work in government," said Lisa Nelson, OpenOpps program manager with GSA's Office of Citizen Science and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT). "You have something small you need done — like some graphic design work — but nobody [in your office] really has the skills to take your PowerPoint and make it more visual and compelling and tell the story. But it's not something you want to bid out and get a contractor … when you know there are people in all places in the government who are interested in doing something like that."
OpenOpps began as 20 tasks on a WordPress site with 200 followers. Since that time, federal employees have helped their colleagues complete some 475 tasks, ranging from complicated coding to more mundane work.
For example, as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) began work on its Citizen Science Toolkit — a collaborative process among feds from more than 35 agencies — the project didn't have a central platform for the group to work off.
Similarly, when USA Search needed to verify more than 11,000 federal, state and municipal websites manually, the task seemed daunting.
The project manager put the list on OpenOpps, breaking them out into chucks state-by-state. A swarm of feds working on the tasks in small pieces were able to verify all the sites within eight months.
Nelson originally envisions the platform as a place to get things done. However, it has become something more, morphing into a community where federal employees can get to know their colleagues and the skills they bring to the table, as well as a place where feds can hone their own skills.
She cited a Veterans Affairs employee in Akron, Ohio who wanted to develop her WordPress skills. The employee started picking up tasks on OpenOpps, each a little more complicated than the last. By the end of a year, her skills had developed enough to make a significant contribution to the OSTP Citizen Science Toolkit platform.
The opportunities are "also really breaking down the silos across government, getting people to collaborate and share information," Nelson said. "One of the things that people who have completed the tasks say is that the biggest value they get are the development opportunities and the connections. The network — having people to call outside of their office — has been valuable both to them and to their supervisors."
"It makes a lot of sense to me," Kramer said. "Learn new skills while you're on the job and meet new colleagues who you might not work with on a daily basis. I'm a really big fan of knowledge sharing and this is one more way to do so."
Kramer found a colleague to help on her project, which she hopes to have wrapped up before the end of the year.