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Open Innovation: Practices to Engage Citizens and Effectively Implement Federal Initiatives

GAO-17-14 Published: Oct 13, 2016. Publicly Released: Oct 13, 2016.
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Fast Facts

How can the federal government better engage citizens?

Federal agencies are using "open innovation" tools to leverage the knowledge and skills of people outside government. Using dedicated websites and in-person outreach, agencies have worked with the public to rebuild communities after Hurricane Sandy, improve methods to find asteroids that could threaten the Earth, and reduce the amount of time required for highway construction projects.

We identified 7 practices that agencies can use to effectively engage the public when using open innovation tools.

Example of Open Innovation Tools: NASA's Asteroid Initiative In-Person Forum and Online Platform

Photos of in-person discussions and website used to collect participant opinions

Photos of in-person discussions and website used to collect participant opinions

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What GAO Found

Open innovation involves using various tools and approaches to harness the ideas, expertise, and resources of those outside an organization to address an issue or achieve specific goals. GAO found that federal agencies have frequently used five open innovation strategies to collaborate with citizens and external stakeholders, and encourage their participation in agency initiatives.

Descriptions of Open Innovation Strategies Used by Federal Agencies

GAO identified seven practices that agencies can use to effectively implement initiatives that involve the use of these strategies:

  • Select the strategy appropriate for the purpose of engaging the public and the agency’s capabilities.
  • Clearly define specific goals and performance measures for the initiative.
  • Identify and engage external stakeholders and potential partners.
  • Develop plans for implementing the initiative and recruiting participants.
  • Engage participants and partners while implementing the initiative.
  • Collect and assess relevant data and report results.
  • Sustain communities of interested partners and participants.

Aspects of these practices are illustrated by the 15 open innovation initiatives GAO reviewed at six selected agencies: the Departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation (DOT); the Environmental Protection Agency; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). For example:

  • With the Asteroid Data Hunter challenge, NASA used a challenge and citizen science effort, beginning in 2014, to improve the accuracy of its asteroid detection program and develop an application for citizen scientists.
  • Since 2009, DOT’s Federal Highway Administration has used an ideation initiative called Every Day Counts to identify innovations to improve highway project delivery. Teams of federal, state, local, and industry experts then implement the ideas chosen through this process.

Why GAO Did This Study

To address the complex and crosscutting challenges facing the federal government, agencies need to effectively engage and collaborate with those in the private, nonprofit, and academic sectors, other levels of government, and citizens. Agencies are increasingly using open innovation strategies for these purposes.

The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) requires federal agencies to identify strategies and resources they will use to achieve their goals. GPRAMA also requires GAO to periodically review how implementation of its requirements is affecting agency performance. This report identifies and illustrates practices that help agencies effectively implement open innovation strategies, and how the use of those strategies has affected agency performance and opportunities for citizen engagement.

To identify these practices, GAO analyzed relevant federal guidance and academic literature, and interviewed open innovation experts. To refine and illustrate the practices, GAO reviewed documents and interviewed officials from the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, General Services Administration, and six selected federal agencies. GAO selected the agencies and a sample of their initiatives based on several factors, including the number and type of initiatives outlined in their Open Government Plans.

For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202) 512-6806 or

Full Report

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Federal agenciesPerformance measuresStrategic planningInnovationsCommunicationsCommunicationPrivate sectorInformation technologyCommunitiesTechnologyWebsitesResearch and developmentTransparencyCitizen participationPublic relations