Ash Center: HKS Student Reflects on Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Labor

April 1, 2013
Ash Center: HKS Student Reflects on Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Labor
“Through my Ash Fellowship, I assisted in creating an Open Data Community of Practice at the Department of Labor which has transformed the way the Department collects and distributes data to the public.” ~Will Cook, MPP 2013 and Ash Fellow in Innovation

By Will Cook

Over the course of two months of my Ash Fellowship at the Department of Labor, I was directly involved with three project streams and exposed to many others. My primary duties involved working on the Department’s Customer Service program, its Open Government initiative, and its efforts around data liberation. I also used the opportunity presented by working within the Office of the Deputy Secretary to learn more about the Department and its people. This took the form of informal discussions with senior staff and more formal participation in projects like a performance improvement initiative designed to align goals, responsibilities, and metrics throughout the organization.

I began work on my three primary projects more or less simultaneously, but I initially focused more heavily on Customer Service. This is partially because the project had the most moving parts, but it also presented a clear opportunity for me to immediately add value. It was similar to the types of projects I had run while in consulting, and there were decisions which could be immediately made to improve the project. One key example was shifting from a “big bang” national roll-out of employee trainings to the use of a staged implementation by agency, creating and leveraging a network of customer service “champions” throughout the organization to help train employees, provide feedback to leadership, and promote the mission of the project. I was asked to work with a team of consultants to execute these changes.

Initially, this was a challenge as the consultants had more career experience and had already taken steps toward implementing their vision for the project. Despite this, the strong support I received from the chief innovation officer, in combination with a quickly developing collaborative relationship with the consultants, ensured that the changes were made in an effective and efficient manner.

Execution of the Open Government initiative gave me the opportunity to further leverage my previous work experience while simultaneously providing a clean slate for me to begin a new project. Two application development contests were active when I came on board, one related to workers’ rights and another to disability issues. I helped to stoke interest in these challenges through a social media campaign which included Twitter activity directed towards civic innovation leaders and developer networks, cross-promotion with planned hackathons in the Washington, DC area, and discussions with online technology journalists.

However, the primary focus of this project stream was the development of a new initiative focused on economic development in the Midwest. I led the development of this plan, ultimately creating a two-phase approach including an ideation competition and the development of a larger collaboration platform. The prize structure for phase one included the support and community backing necessary to help the winner transform their idea into reality. Phase two was planned to build on the success of phase one, creating a place for industry data to be collected through a wiki, ideation to continue, ideas to be taken to the next level with more detailed proposals, and networks to be formed among community leaders, financiers, and industry.

The most challenging part of my fellowship was the stop and go nature of the work. I was sometimes able to focus almost exclusively on certain projects for days at a time, but there were other times when I faced bottlenecks which slowed the process considerably. It was during these times that I changed gears to focus more on other project streams and found other creative ways to advance Labor’s mission in the field of civic innovation. As an example of the latter, I created an infograph to highlight the challenges faced by a US industry targeted by one project.

The third work stream I helped develop while at the Department of Labor offered the greatest opportunity to make a meaningful change in the way data was collected and distributed to the public by the Department. Initially, I wanted to jump into the depths of the organization, talking with middle management and data collectors about their data. Discussions with members of the Kennedy School faculty on this problem underscored the importance of talking to those below agency leadership that dealt directly with the data. However, with the size and complexity of the organization, it quickly became apparent that a more nuanced approach was needed.

Ultimately, I assisted in creating an Open Data Community of Practice, which brought together carefully identified data and program representatives from each agency. This community exists to share best practices, improve the quality of data posted externally, provide increased context for existing data used by developers, and better manage/maintain internal data inventories.

Will Cook is a MPA 2013 at Harvard Kennedy School and an Ash Summer Fellow in Innovation