10 Ingredients Missing in Federal Government Innovation

By Steve Ressler, Founder of GovLoop

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 interpret 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 rule-making 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 naysayers).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:

    • 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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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
  1. 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
  2. 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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