10 Ingredients Missing in Federal Gov’t Innovation

Innovation is the hot buzzword. From local government innovation officers to a deputy CTO in charge of innovation, governments are more and more focused on innovation.

But how do you really make innovation happen in government? What are the missing ingredients?

I thought I’d take a stab at an answer so here’s my 10 ingredients missing in federal government innovation:

1) Big Problems to Solve – Too often government innovation is focused on cool, fun items instead of the big multi-million pain points. The fun projects often done for free or super cheap.

Federal government innovation needs to focus on the hundred million dollar problems (love for example how HHS is doing innovative development work on their core healthcare.gov not just a side small project/site).

Even at the White House level there is only a $40 million budget for e-gov and innovative projects while the GSA SAM project has a $70 million budget alone

2) Understanding what’s out there – We are all busy in our day jobs cranking out work. So as we approach a new idea, it’s hard to know what’s even out there.

We need a repository of case studies and templates of types of activities (here’s literally the documents we created internally to run X). And we need to go past soft high-level information and dive in deep – understand literally how you do it (what was staff structure, what was the timeline, how much did it cost). Make sure you move past the well-known case studies – we do a lot of GovLoop surveys on topics and every time we hear about unknown new case studies, hear real problems.

3) Help around (Perceived) Rules – Generally lots of innovative projects get stalled in a review process around real or perceived rules. This could be legal, security, 508 compliance, procurement, etc. While occasionally there are good reasons why an innovative project shouldn’t be used according to rules, I often find projects are stopped or stalled more by perceived rules that other individuals in the same roles in other agencies interprete differently.

Recently, I talked to Alan Balutis who mentioned that in the Gore Reinventing Government project they asked this question – what is preventing you from innovating? And 90% of the rules people mentioned as reasons either didn’t exist or were interpreted wrong.

To increase innovation, it would be awesome to have help around these rulings. Items like FEDRAMP help as it’s one C&A for federal government. It would be also great to be able to connect lots of these rulemaking officials to learn how other agencies interpret the same findings.

4) Help Selling an Idea – It is hard to sell innovative ideas in an agency. Everyone has been in those shoes trying to work up a .ppt on an innovative idea and been in the meeting trying to sell the idea (against many naysayear)

It would be awesome to have help “selling an idea”. It could be a .ppt repository (a Docstoc for government) so there are slides you could use (everyone needs similar #s on mobile stats, BYOD, etc) and examples from other agencies.

This is a huge issue – in GovLoop trainings, we often hear this comment- “These are all great ideas but how do I get internal and leadership buy-in to turn an idea into reality” It would be great if you could bring another agency leader on topic to the meeting – usually having an outside person sell the idea works.

5) Capacity – The challenge with launching innovative projects is often it’s actually more work and most often, everyone says they are busy. So how do you get capacity to deliver innovative projects?

There are lots of new ways to get capacity on innovation and they just need to be structured clearly on how folks can engage

-Microtasking (see previous post)

-SWAT teams (short-term volunteers)

-Hackathons, challenges, hackdays

-Internal fellowships – have internal employees rotate on 6 month to 12 month fellowships

-External fellowships – Bring in external leaders in for 6 to 12 months

-Universities – Ways to leverage university classes on specific project (lots of smart students willing to help)

6) Foster Sharing of Ideas – The best breakthroughs happen when you are connecting across boundaries. Part of the idea of the Presidential Innovation Fellows I love is the opportunity to share across sectors. Put three top government leaders who know a specific problem (say acquisition) really well with three outside innovators who know outside ways to solve problems. You need the experts and outsiders to make the changes.

I wrote a whole post on this but I think there needs to be clear tools with structure for internal use on asking for help, soliciting feedback in a way that can be anonymous for those that are shy. Kind of a combination of a Sparked / great listserv / Stackoverflow.

7 Outreach/Marketing – Promotion of these Concepts

Too often innovative projects and approaches are only known about at the high levels (White House, Cabinet, the small influencer worlds). To get true adoption, you need to get down to the doers. This doesn’t happen with one email or a short PR stint.
It’s like any project – it requires great outreach and marketing. Hipmunk may be a better approach to travel search but it can’t stop there – it requires tons of marketing to get people to use it (search ads, banner ads, TV ads)
For any of these innovative solutions to work, it should have a defined outreach/marketing strategy with budget/staff to actually accomplish it. Just like it requires great effort and skills for Census to get their message out to the public – getting innovative ideas out across a large agency and across government agencies requires time/money/expertise.

8) Clear Ways to Engage

Even if folks know about a new approach, it needs to be super clear how they can engage. For any of these innovation solutions, it should be super clear in :

-Way to submit your project want help on

-Way to submit your idea

-Way to submit your solution

-Way to submit telling your story

9) Prioritization List – Innovation needs to be practical as well – there needs to be a structure to it. A flow to it. For example, research agencies usually come up with a list every year of key topics they are looking for new ideas on as well as open calls.

Innovation needs to be the same way in government. Open calls are great (like SAVE awards) and ground-up innovation is awesome but in addition there should be focused targeted list of needs where need help with goals, timelines, and ways to engage. And on the reverse side, agency leaders need to know of one clear places they can go with their priorities and needs. For example, I am looking Some of this is already occurring at challenge.gov

10) Tools to Prototype – To innovate, you need to be quickly able to mock up your ideas and need the tools to do. Sites like apps.gov provide tools government employees can quickly get going on to prototype. We need those terms of services and tools ready to go – so if you want to mock up something, you can use government approved software they can get off the web. Too often in an innovative project, it is quickly mocked up but for a beta test to launch it requires 6 months of security & legal work.

What do you think is missing in federal innovation? What 1 thing do you think is needed?

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(Attribution – Innovation Photo – Creative Commons – Flickr Seth1492)

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5 Comments

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Profile Photo Dick Davies

Looking at successful innovation, what I find missing is the opportunity, recognition, and reward for individual effort through to a goal.

I recently keynoted an annual kickoff for a very large, DC-based, bureaucratic organization. The person in charge had done an amazing job marshaling and encouraging the stakeholders, creating a valuable, innovative, and fun event. I sent her a note acknowledging her contribution. She sent back asking me to reword it that she was “part of the team.”

I observed what she did while her boss was running around admiring himself, acting the star. There had been a change for better demonstrated, and the organization was incapable of defining what had worked.

If the management can’t see good when it’s being done, there’s a slim chance of following through to success.

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Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

Yep, especially–

#3, rules and processes – and the point about real or perceived.

#4, inconsistent attitudes toward innovation among leadership, management and staff.

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Profile Photo Alan Pentz

I agree with Dannielle on pulling out 3 and 4. Most program managers know that it’s all fine until you stir up something and then the forces of inertia swarm you and leadership mostly doesn’t have your back. How do you change the culture to you are in trouble if you don’t innovate? That’s a big change.

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Profile Photo Eric Melton

What is missing is time and money. Innovation can often increase efficiency, saving time and money. However, innovation is “above and beyond” day-to-day business and duties. Therefore, innovation first COSTS time and money. Innovation is an INVESTMENT.

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Profile Photo Dale M. Posthumus

I both agree and disagree with your first point — big problems to solve. I agree govt shouldn’t undertake some small project simply because it is doable and skip larger projects because they are complex. However, the recent history of large technology projects in government, especially the US Govt, has not been a good one. I believe the govt must break down larger projects into manageable smaller ones, and test and integrate them as they move along. Healthcare.gov appears to be one where the govt tried to do too much in too short of time, with insufficient interaction between project teams, and leadership unwilling to recognize/accept problems and “failure” (that is, not meeting scheduled promises, such as deadlines, per Sec. Sebelius’ “delay was not an option” statement). Many in the project, public and private, appeared to be reluctant to speak out to say things didn’t look like they should. The project appears to also have been somehwat stove-piped, as evidenced by the article on Sivak’s work with Development Seed. This innovative work was not well integrated with the rest of the project. I would like to hear more about what is being done now to get the web site back on track, innovative ideas or approaches, who is doing what in which teams, etc. build was a lesson in what not to do. The fix could be a lesson in what should be done.

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