Creating Innovation in Government


Andreas Addison, Civic Innovator, City of Richmond (moderator)

Philip Ashlock, Civic Agency

Thomas Houston, Fuse Corps Fellow, City of Richmond

Dan Hoffman, Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County

Marina Martin, Presidential Innovation Fellow

Earlier in the day, Andreas Addison likened creating innovation in government to herding cats. At his breakout session “Creating Innovation in Government,” we heard from innovators from across the country how to directly address the challenges of innovation with a fascinating discussion of the tools and mindset it takes to make innovation happen. Two different levels of how you create innovation were discussed, from creating a culture of failure to doing disruptive work in government.

Dan Hoffman, the Chief Innovation Officer for Montgomery County, models his agency off the New Urban Mechanics Program out of the City of Boston. He sought to create “a safe place to fail.” A safe place to fail is a place is not just where failure is accepted, but expected. “If I am not failing, then I am not trying hard enough.”

Thomas Houston worked for 4 months in Richmond as a Fuse Corps Fellow, where he applied his private sector background in brand management to social issues. He was able to apply his love for access for low income residents with open data.

Philip Ashlock was one of the first Presidential Innovation Fellows, where he worked on myUSA with the General Services Administration. One of his most influential accomplishments was creating the technical standard for Open311, now used in cities around the country. He is driven by two important questions:

  1. How can we provide interfaces that provide a simpler experience working with government?
  2. How can we better interconnect governments across all levels of government?

Marina Martin is a past Presidential Innovation Fellow and was on the Open Data team for the Department of Education. She is now one of the Senior Advisors for the CTO Todd Parks and has since rebuilt She is the one behind the Open Data Policy Memo issued by the President. This policy makes data collected or maintained by the government open by default.

So, what are the challenges facing the innovator, the disrupter? Our panelists weigh in:

Dan: Organizational and legal opposition to a project and the risk of failure. The confusion about where to start is the biggest hurdle to getting innovation started.

Thomas: The logistics of starting is very challenging, there are pros and cons to beginning with buy-in from leadership or buy-in from the people doing the work. Both are needed.

Philip: Start with who is listening.

Marina: Talk to those who have tried to solve the problem before, they are your greatest allies. Collectively create the end goal instead of putting down a mandate. A mandate will make it harder to implement no matter how good the idea is.

Andreas: The scalability and sustainability of a project.

How do you sell it to people? How do you create buy-in?

Dan: OpenData is a mandate and initially there will never be naysayers about government transparency, right? But a year in, they ask, “Who’s really using this?” What’s the demand side of OpenData? Who is using our prime analytics? Without a demand side, we are going to pay a lot of money to supply it. What is the return on investment? What is the imperative?

Thomas: There need to be immediate wins because people want you to fail.

Philip: If the innovation lives in a single person, there is a single point of failure. Build a network. For example, neither of the original two cities in Open311 are still involved in the project. Sustain projects with networks. Any opportunity to cede control of an idea in the interest of it scaling and sustaining is really critical.

Marina: Celebrate what people are already doing. Incentivize with recognition. Publishing OpenData is a lot of work that doesn’t benefit the person who is working. Help them by setting up a webform that will automatically fill in. Achieve their needs at the same time.

What is the next big innovative project?

Dan: Create a project that will have public outcry if it were to have its budget taken away.

Thomas: Public-private partnerships enable long-term strategy that lead to solutions (not just answers).

Philip: We are familiar with apps, while that is helpful in generating new ideas but to me, we need to think deeper and long-term with our digital and civic infrastructure. There is a huge potential to find common technical architecture that will unify across different levels of government.

Marina: What are the tools to institutionalize OpenData? The new federated inventory, all our data sets should be aligned and filtered into additional data portals effortlessly.

What about unintended consequences with OpenData?

Dan: We worry about that with every data set. We just have to be consistent. We are releasing data about an entire segment. We had to pull one dataset because it interacted with others that revealed the home or work of people with protective issues.

Marina: Data releases have to be really comprehensive. Release data thoughtfully. We have to be very fair and protect against pricing collusion. You have to be careful with the mosaic effect because if you have 60 pieces of information you can identify just about anyone.

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