Interview on GovLoop Innovation Report

We recently read a great interview over at EngagingCities on an interesting report detailing 20 significant innovations made in government last year, and we thought it would interest our NCDD members. We encourage you to read the interview below or find the original post here.

engaging cities logoIn late December, GovLoop released a new report, “The GovLoop Guide to 20 Innovations that Mattered in 2013.” EngagingPlans editor Della Rucker recently sat down with Emily Jarvis, lead writer of the report and producer of the GovLoop podcast, the DorobekINSIDER, to talk about how Emily and her colleagues uncovered those innovations, and what they found.

DGR: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Emily. Where did the idea for the20 Innovations that Matter report come from?

EJ: 2013 was a rough year for government people, especially federal employees. We felt like most of the media wasn’t telling the whole story about government employees – and we knew that government is one of the most innovative entities out there. So we wanted to highlight those achievements. Last year (2012) we did a report on technology in government, so that was kind of a stepping stone.

DGR: How did you uncover all these trends, and so much information about them? There are a lot of concrete examples in this report.

EJ: We had a team of 14 people who were involved. We went through various resources that GovLoop had generated over the year – guides, trainings, the podcast, etc. We ended up seeing four categories of stories that were very much about people in governments taking risks, trying something new. We wanted to call those out.

When we had those four categories identifies, then we went back through the specific stories to find the five strongest examples. We wanted to choose stories where we could make a strong case for why that innovation matters. A great example is the I-Center in North Carolina, which allows government agencies to try out technologies before they buy them. This innovation was powerful because resources are so tight, governments can’t take risks on buying the wrong equipment. The I-Center was a great way to manage that risk.

We ended up with 150 stories, which was of course way too many. So we put them all on Google Docs and out staff voted to end up with the 20 we highlighted in the report. There’s probably another 125 that we could have put on the list!

DGR: What did you see that surprised you? Did any trends surface that were unexpected?

EJ: We’re very tech-forward at GovLoop, so to see large agencies taking that risk and seeing what they can do with social media was great. For example, the Department of the Interior’s Instagram feed… I kind of use my dad as a litmus test for things like this! If it catches his attention, if it demonstrates to him what government can do, then I know it can have an impact. He was so excited about the Department of Interior Instagram feed – now he has a different relationship with that part of the government! He can see an agency at work.

What’s really amazing is how social media use like that example changes peoples’ views of government agencies and workers. It showcases how cool a government worker can be!

In May 2013, when the Open Data Directive first came out from the White House, that was critical to another trend that we identified. It basically said that all new federal data needs to default to open – it needs to be open to the public unless there is a necessary reason to not release it. I don’t think that’s something that someone in the general public would necessarily understand or care about, but so many of the apps and projects that are being developed now are based on open data. There are whole sectors of the economy that are based on government data. But it’s hard for people who are outside of government to understand that. It’s not just about opening it up to the public, but it’s also making it so that the data can be shared and used. That’s transformative.

One of the coolest things I saw was what local governments are doing with libraries. These institutions needed to find new ways to interact with people, and they are basically reinventing themselves as a tech hub. For example, Anne Arundel County’s library is across the street from a new Target, and people who wanted to apply for jobs had to do it online. But if you don’t have a computer or internet access, how do you apply for those jobs? The library basically set up an employment center, and it helped people do their applications. We’re seeing a resurgence in libraries that you wouldn’t have bet on a few years ago. You see government changing.

Another fascinating example of government changing, and changing swiftly and responsively, came from the Boston Police Department. As a lot of us remember, the first news that they had caught the fugitive from the Boston Marathon bombing came from the Police Department’s Twitter. That tweet got 3 million retweets in the first three minutes. Even two years ago, no one would have imagined that news would have been spread like that. Even more fascinating, that department now has a chance to really do something different. They have a huge audience, and people have trust in them.

DGR: What kinds of trends are you seeing with regard to Innovation Officers? That’s been a subject of some debate, at least in the local government world.

EJ: Governments are at a point where money is tight but the demand for their services is higher than ever. We’re seeing that some cities have dedicated themselves to trying something new every chance they can. They realize that it might not work, but that they can try and learn from it and do something better. They’re becoming more agile. It’s flipping the script on how people assume that government works. The Innovation Officer becomes the person who is out on the leading edge, saying “follow me, let’s give it a try and learn from it.”

We talked to one of the White House’s Innovation Fellows – Clay Johnson. He was working on improving the federal procurement process, and he noted that the biggest challenge was the senior leadership – he said, “they had to change the way they think.” That’s incredibly hard for government employees. They’re intensely cognizant of their responsibility as stewards of the taxpayer’s money, and they have to walk a very fine line between being responsible and enabling necessary new ideas. There’s reasons why governments do things the way they do – there are checks and balances. The Innovation Officer – or anyone who is supporting government innovation, whatever their title — can’t go crazy. It’s more about having someone within the government or agency who is willing and able to say “Let’s try this, let’s fail smartly.”

DGR: If someone were flipping through this report casually, what would you want them to take away from it? What’s the message you most want people to get out of it?

EJ: If someone were to flip through it like a magazine, I’d want them to realize that government isn’t made up of a bunch of bureaucrats. Governments can be, and a lot of the time they are, on the cusp of innovation.

I’d want them to come away with a different interpretation of government employees, to understand that the media’s portrayal is not what they are. Innovation is alive in government, and it matters!

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