Make Way for Microtasking

The State Department's workforce grew a whole lot larger last fall when it launched a new platform that farms out small tasks to American college students.

State's Virtual Student Foreign Service Program launched a pilot microvolunteering platform that allows State employees to post unclassified, short tasks that can be performed by eager student volunteers.

The platform, which uses Sparked -- a task distribution and collaboration platform developed by San Francisco-based The Extraordinaries Inc. -- allows State Department workers to post tasks that require anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours to complete. Any American college student with a dot-edu email address can sign up and agree to complete a task that interests them, Bridget Roddy, program manager for the VSFS program, told Wired Workplace on Thursday.

"We offer virtual internships to college students, but because there was such a high demand for opportunities to engage with the State Department, we thought about how else we could engage college students to help us with the work we do," she said.

Aside from a line-item on their resume, students are motivated to participate in part because of the opportunity to receive one of up to two awards of excellence from State employees on each particular task, Roddy said. Students also are able to create teams representing their college or university, so many students simply want to see their school do well, she added.

State also is working to determine how to quantify the tasks students perform as microvolunteers and officials are weighing whether a certain level of contribution could transfer into course credit, Roddy said.

Thus far, jobs completed by students range from creating a welcome brochure for new employees in Guyana to researching tax rates in the European Union to creating pie charts and graphs for presentations, Roddy said.

The State Department plans to launch the full-scale version of the microvolunteering platform within the next few months, meaning it would open up to all American college students, whether graduate, undergraduate, Ph.D., full-time or part-time, Roddy said.

"We're relying on social media and word of mouth to spread the message of opportunity to American college students," she said. "It's about making sure our students are aware and eager about engaging on the website and about making sure our employees understand how to do this kind of chunking of projects."

Introducing virtual internships and microtasking to the State Department workforce has required a bit of a culture shift, so the department has relied on presentations and webinars to educate employees on how to use the website and how it can change the work they do, Roddy said. "Anytime you introduce a new technology, especially into a government organization, it takes time," she said. "There definitely is a culture shift. We have to show how the technology is valuable, how people can use it to change the culture and make people comfortable using the technology."

Pending continued success with the microvolunteering initiative within VSFS, however, Roddy said the hope is to incorporate microtasking internally among State Department employees. "We have such a diverse workforce," she said. "By allowing employees to devote 5 percent of their workweek to other projects, they will feel empowered and develop skills they might not have otherwise been able to develop in their current position."

The program also is sparking interest from other agencies. In fact, the General Services Administration called the State Department on Thursday to discuss the idea of microtasking and whether it could be appropriate for GSA and the federal government at large, Roddy said.

"The question is, how can we apply this sort of model to how we work, whether it's working with external audiences or with internal employees," she said. "We're happy to share what we've learned and how we move forward with other agencies who are interested in adopting this type of model."