During her relatively short time in government, Jenn Gustetic has been on a mission to convince federal agencies to turn to an untapped resource for innovation: an ideas-rich general public.
Gustetic, 33, has worked as assistant director for open innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from September 2014 to May 2016. On her first day at OSTP, she stepped into a key advisory role by helping create a crowdsourcing platform that would collect ideas to stop the spread of the Ebola virus.
The innovations uncovered in that effort included redesigned protective suits and treatment tents, allowing health-care workers to do a more effective job combating the disease.
“The use of prizes and challenges, citizen science and crowdsourcing represents a transformation in the way the government does business,” said W. James Adams, deputy chief technologist at NASA. “Jenn has led efforts to raise the profile and credibility of these approaches, document best practices to make them easier to use, and she has helped institutionalize them through policies and guidance.”
Using her knowledge of technology and policy, Gustetic has provided technical and design advice on 50 competitions. These range from approaches to reduce solar energy costs to the development of better algorithms that identify hazardous asteroids in telescope images.
Gustetic was serving on detail from NASA where she honed her networking and organizational skills as a program executive. Observing that the space agency was using prize competitions and challenges sparingly, she helped NASA make greater use of this process to benefit from outside brainpower and novel approaches for doing its work.
In May 2016, Gustetic returned to NASA to lead the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research Program, which funds research, development and demonstration of technologies that fulfill the agency’s needs and have significant potential for successful commercialization.
In each of Gustetic’s roles, the main obstacle to progress has involved overcoming institutional resistance to change.
“It can be very hard for a federal agency to try an approach they haven’t tried before,” said Cristin Dorgelo, chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology.
“Jenn has a complete belief that when the federal government works with the public and harnesses American ingenuity, we are a more effective government,” Dorgelo said. “She believes this in her heart and soul and exudes it in her work.”
Gustetic’s undergraduate work, as well as graduate study in technology policy instilled in her an appreciation of the value of collaboration, and she sees public involvement as essential to improving government practice. “If we are not bringing people along, it is just another website that doesn’t drive innovation,” she says. “Nothing happens without people.”
At NASA, Gustetic had to overcome skepticism that the public could add much to the knowledge derived from the agency’s best engineering minds. The agency had begun using challenges and prize competitions in 2005, but “only in silos,” Gustetic said.
She became involved in efforts to establish a more cohesive community of practice. One challenge benefited the space program, as people from outside the agency offered ideas to improve the descent trajectory of the Mars rover during landing. This and other efforts “did not replace the work of NASA, but augmented it,” she said.
Gustetic essentially served as a catalyst for embedding into NASA’s culture an approach that actively seeks public involvement, accomplishing this in part through consistent networking within the space agency.
Because of these team-building efforts, “a farmer in Iowa can become part of the nation’s space program,” Adams said.
Gustetic’s arrival at the White House Office of Science and Technology followed the administration’s concern that it was unacceptable that there wasn’t better equipment to protect against the spread of Ebola.
She had a prominent role on the team that designed the open innovation and prize elements to collect ideas for dealing with the epidemic, an effort under the United States Agency for International Development. Adams said the 14 innovations in health-care equipment, tools and strategy that grew out of this process were important in the fight against Ebola and other emerging health threats.
While Gustetic has been involved with teams across government whose efforts have fueled innovative ideas, she considers the publication of an Open Innovation Toolkit for use by all federal agencies to be her most significant achievement. She calls the toolkit “a first-ever open-source resource to enable more federal employees to use more innovative approaches.”
The toolkit’s first component provides step-by-step guidance for developing and implementing programs in citizen science and crowdsourcing to get ideas from individuals and groups beyond the experts agencies typically tap.
Gustetic said her aim is to “do new things” in government by “getting people to buy into new ideas.” At the end of the day, she said, her ultimate goal in promoting challenges and prizes is “to achieve better public value.”
This finalist was recognized under the former category name, Call to Service, which was updated to the Emerging Leaders medal in 2020.