Fostering Innovation in Government

Innovation is the introduction of a new idea, method, or device. It’s a huge buzzword in government that has come to signal the digital transformation of how government works. While much of the innovation in government is being driven by new technology — be that Artificial Intelligence, virtual reality, or even just cloud — changing processes can also be incredibly impactful and even necessary to utilize the “shiny new” technological innovations.

While processes may not be as exciting to discuss as the technologies, they are a critical piece of the innovation puzzle and have proven to be where innovation is held back. This phenomenon has been termed the “Valley of Death.” Great ideas and solutions are ramped up in a lab or in a small pilot but cannot scale to meet the larger enterprise needs. Many times that inability to scale is not due to technology, but rather to government’s inability to move a solution into the larger enterprise. Government can introduce key process changes to better foster the innovation that is happening within agencies in a couple of key areas.

  • Creative Contracting — The strict contracting requirements of government, while necessary to ensure austerity in spending, can be a huge hindrance to introducing new and emerging solutions. Innovative procurement solutions exist today – Commercial Solutions Openings (CSOs), Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs), Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) — but they may not be fully understood by program officers looking to implement a new solution.
  • Education on the Art of the Possible — The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) created a learning agenda aligned with the President’s Management Agenda to help inform researchers, human resource professionals, program managers, and others about how to work across government to come up with solutions to meet mission and operational challenges.
  • Spread the wealth — Rather than centralizing all innovation in labs, there is an effort to incorporate more people in the development of new solutions to government problems. Congress is considering legislation that would designate economic development funding to new tech hubs located all over the country. It would essentially be a competition among regions that have not been as active in the tech boom, challenging them to put together compelling innovation. “Winning” ideas would get funding over a ten-year period.
  • Formalizing innovation — Playing into government’s comfort with structure, some agencies are creating innovation teams to hold the entire agency or department accountable to the idea of forward progress. The DoD innovation steering group has a focus on research and development across the whole department. Also in DoD, the Accelerate the Procurement and Fielding of Innovative Technologies (APFIT) program was designed to transition technologies — with priority given to those developed by small businesses and/or nontraditional defense contractors — from pilot programs, prototype projects, and research projects into production.

Beyond these tactical steps, to have an innovative government, the people working in it have to feel empowered. The Partnership for Public Service conducted a survey that found that less than 67% of public servants feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing their jobs. That is more than seven points lower than private sector counterparts. Part of this empowerment means changing the culture of government work from incredibly risk averse to one with some level of permission to fail. No longer should teams be forced to see a contract that is not working through to its prescribed contract end date. Instead, teams should be encouraged to point out issues and need for change. They should be incentivized through ties to performance reviews or future funding to introduce a calculated risk or change. Then we may see innovation move from a buzzword within mandates to an actual characteristic of government.

As the founder of GovEvents and GovWhitePapers, Kerry is on a mission to help businesses interact with, evolve, and serve the government. With 25+ years of experience in the information technology and government industries, Kerry drives the overall strategy and oversees operations for both companies. She has also served in executive marketing roles at a number of government IT providers

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