Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Creating a “community of practice,” where agency staff interested in evidence, data and innovation gather regularly, can help to build a culture of learning and improvement.
What’s one of the easiest, quickest, lowest-cost ways to jump-start a culture of learning and improvement within a government agency? It’s to regularly gather (virtually, if it’s during a pandemic) staff who have a passion for, or interest in, using evidence, data and innovation to improve program results. In other words, it’s to launch a “community of practice.”
A community of practice has several benefits. First, it’s a great way to share knowledge across an agency, including about outcome-focused practices that leading offices or programs within the agency are using. Another benefit is that it builds camaraderie among employees who share an interest in topics like evidence and data. And a third benefit is ease of implementation. Most communities of practice can be set up within a matter of weeks and typically involve no new costs.
If you’re considering launching a community of practice in your agency, answering these four questions can help you get started and make it successful:
What topic(s) will the group focus on?
The choice depends on what’s most useful to your agency. It could be evidence-based decision-making, the use of data, performance management, innovation or some combination of those or something else entirely. For example, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment created a community of practice around using behavioral insights (that is, findings from behavioral economics and related fields) to improve program operations. At the federal level, the Small Business Administration created a community of practice that brings together program-evaluation and performance-management staff to find ways to learn from and support each other’s work.
What’s the group’s goal?
Many communities of practice have a goal of knowledge sharing. In that case, meeting agendas might include speakers from within the agency or from other agencies who share results-focused strategies such as rapid experimentation, using performance dashboards or creating learning agendas. The presentations might be higher-level that inspire participants to want to learn more. Or more detailed like providing advice about implementation.
A good example of a knowledge-sharing community of practice is organized by North Carolina’s Office of Strategic Partnerships. Its purpose is to promote collaboration between government and the academic, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. Its monthly meetings—open to anyone inside and outside government—are online webinars called “Monthly Connect” that feature panel discussions and Q&As with attendees.
Another potential goal of a community of practice is to identify the next steps the agency could take. For example, during the Obama administration the Education Department set up an evidence planning group comprised of experts from across the department. The voluntary group met every two weeks to identify ways to help programs build and use evidence better, including peer-to-peer meetings with program staff to brainstorm.
How will we kick things off?
One useful practice is to invite the agency leader or deputy to make opening remarks at the community of practice’s first meeting. That sends a clear signal that the work of the group is valued and important. The agenda might then turn to participant introductions, timely updates, and then to the meeting’s main business, whether its sharing useful practices or other goals. Subsequent meetings could dive right in to updates and the main business.
How will we sustain the effort?
Once a community of practice is up and running, its coordinators need to be flexible to keep it relevant to attendees’ and the agency’s needs. One way to do that is to regularly seek input from attendees—whether it’s through online surveys or feedback cards—about what the most useful aspects of the group are and what suggestions they have for improving it. Likewise, the coordinators should periodically check in with agency leadership to share what the group has accomplished and to brainstorm how it could better help the agency tackle its priority challenges.
Communities of practice come in all shapes and sizes, but they share a common belief that when results-focused staff come together, good things happen faster than when we’re on our own. By taking these four steps, agencies can create and sustain a community of practice that’s valued by staff and leadership.
Andrew Feldman is a director at Grant Thornton Public Sector LLC and also hosts the Gov Innovator podcast. He has served at both the state and federal levels, including as a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.