Building An Innovative Government

Innovation is the process of creating something new to make life better. Great innovators are passionate and obsessed with their ideas.  They take risks.  To be innovative is to focus incessantly on solving a problem for the betterment of humanity.

Most people don’t think of the government as necessarily being innovative, seeing it instead as bureaucratic and tedious…quite the opposite of innovative. In reality, Government programs are often the crucial ingredient in the growth of private industries and innovation.  Take DARPA for example.  After the success of Manhattan Project (perhaps the most innovative and world changing government program of all time), the military looked for ways to keep scientists involved.  President Eisenhower approved the creation of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and since then it has been a mainstay of technological development.  DARPA is responsible for the technology we use every day, like GPS, the Internet, and voice-recognition software to name a few examples.  Research at NIH is also another great example of the government’s ability to promote innovation for the betterment of humanity.  They are constantly facilitating trials to develop cures for diseases and illnesses, using ground breaking treatments from the best scientists and doctors in the world.

Recently, we have noticed an increased interest in building a more innovative culture by federal offices that have mission related focuses. That is, they are looking for innovative solutions to solve their day-to-day problems to better support the American people through their mission.

To expand their leadership in innovation, from the more science/technology based applications into the more business and mission focused, the government will need to take a different approach. Instead of just trying to hire the best scientists or engineers possible and providing them a problem statement and funds to solve it, the government is looking to answer their missions’ problems with the people that live it – the personnel with the boots on the ground.

There are several processes that can be used by the Government to facilitate the innovations’ development. The gateway review approach has been met with success by the government already, in showing quick wins in getting ideas from conception to realization. For those not familiar, a gateway review is the process of developing a solution through a series of reviews.  The reviews are usually done through a board or steering committee that has the ability to make ‘on the spot’ decisions on the solutions funding and requirements.  This allows the program to make quick refinements to the solution’s requirements or development from conception to realization.  Another example of the government’s attempts is the IT Fellows program.  Many agencies have invested in this program, hiring industry leaders for two to four year details to bring in fresh ideas and to act as trusted advisors to existing leadership.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in building an innovative culture is not the process to judge and develop the ideas, but in creating a culture of soliciting innovative ideas from those who live the problem. In the public sector, being risk averse has traditionally been a good thing, especially when using tax dollars and protecting or supporting the American people. The risks are typically small so that, if a proposed solution is not working out, it did not take a small fortune to develop the failure.  However, being innovative means taking risks, so federal agencies must be willing to accept failure. They must also create a mechanism to collect ideas and to change the culture so that employees have confidence that, when they have a good idea, something will come of it.

We suggest that four key aspects of an effective innovation program are:

  1. In building an innovation process the scope must be well defined. The program should not attempt to “boil the ocean” and solve all the Department’s problems. Determine the innovations’ area of focus that can be most useful and developed using agile methodologies.
  2. To ensure employees know they are going to the right place, an awareness campaign can be valuable to make all targeted employees aware of the process and how to submit their ideas.
  3. If the employee isn’t able to be the champion for their proposed solution, the process to develop the innovation should have a step early on that will assign ownership. It should be clear that it is acceptable to recommend a possible solution for someone else to develop.
  4. Finally, employees must somehow be acknowledged for their efforts. Employees involved in the process will often have a full workload from their day jobs, so the sacrifices they will have to make should be rewarded.

This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg on discussing what is involved in the massive undertaking of changing a culture to be more innovative. We are very interested in hearing from you and continuing this conversation.  Have you experienced an agency’s success or attempts at building a more innovative culture?  Do you have an innovative idea or problem with nowhere to go?  Let us know your thoughts by posting a comment.  Thanks for reading!

Do Good. Have Fun.  Add Value.

John B. Carr, PMP, CSM, ITIL, is a senior project manager, scrum master, and strategic consultant who enjoys exploring creative solutions to resolve those complex, “wicked” problems of the federal government using empathy and agile approaches. He is the author of several white papers including “Innovating IT Solutions Using Human-Centered Design” and “Implementing Attribute Based Access Control in the Federal Arena” found here. Feel free to contact him at jcarr@ementum.com.

John Carr

John B. Carr, PMP, CSM, ITIL, is a senior project manager, scrum master, and strategic consultant who enjoys exploring creative solutions to resolve those complex, “wicked” problems of the federal government using empathy and agile approaches. He is the author of several white papers including “Innovating IT Solutions Using Human-Centered Design” and “Implementing Attribute Based Access Control in the Federal Arena” found here. Feel free to contact him at jcarr@ementum.com.

2 thoughts on “Building An Innovative Government

  1. On March 9th, OMB released the “Acquisition Innovation Labs & Pilot for Digital Acquisition Innovation Lab” memo. (a day after this blog post was published)

    This memo stressed the need to develop a capability and capacity to help their programs adopt new and better practices. It focuses around the acquisition lifecycle and echoes the sediment made in this blog post. You can find the memo on the OMB website. Also, Federal Times published a reaction worth reading here: http://www.federaltimes.com/story/government/acquisition/policy/2016/03/10/omb-all-agency-acquisitions-get-innovation-labs-may-2/81584770/

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