Want to innovate government? Focus on culture

When innovating in government, the technology’s the easy part. Innovative efforts often do one of two things:

  1. They take long-established technology from the private sector and inject it into an agency, or

  2. They reimagine long-assumed processes from the citizen’s perspective.

The ultimate meta yak shave

If you want to innovate government, 90-day, 120-day, or six-month “fellowships” (read: glorified internships) aren’t the way to do it. Talk to any Code for America or Presidential Innovation Fellow and you’ll hear a common theme: absent sufficient cultural, administrative, and political support, between 30 and 60 percent of your time will be spent not doing what you were actually brought on to do, but rather convincing others that that’s what you should be doing (or that they won’t go to jail if they help).

You have to fight for the tools, you have to fight for the workflows, you have to fight for the resources, and you have to fight for the solution itself. Every step is a fight, and that’s assuming you don’t have to argue things that are long-resolved in the rest of the technology world like the security of PHP or Ruby versus .Net or the need for continuous deployment. And we’ve only just touched the surface of the technological considerations. There are countless layers of policy, administrative, and bureaucratic hoops to jump through or otherwise route efforts around. Just whisper the phrase “change review board” and observe a change agent’s reaction.

Bureaucracy is an organism

Bureaucracy’s primary goal is survival, and like any organism, it has an immune system. The red blood cells of bureaucracy are the general counsels, privacy officers, security officers, and paperwork reducers, among other bureaucrats, and it’s in their personal and organizational interest to reduce risk to as close to zero as possible. By necessity, they thrive in a culture of “no”.

An innovator’s primary goal is the exact opposite. An inovator thrives on sustainable disruption. These two countervailing interests — stability and instability — balance each other out in most organizations, however, absent the traditional profit motive found in the private sector, government gives this immune system the privileged position of actual or pocket veto authority over just about every agency decision.

Never take “no” from someone who can’t say “yes”

You could have the most innovative idea, perfectly executed, and fully within the letter of the law, but if any one of the ten to fifteen layers of agency’s immune system so much as sniffs an antibody they’re not familiar with, the effort’s dead in the water. Whether the threat’s real or percieved, it’s perpetual pollen season and the bureaucracy has chronic allergies.

So how do you solve for the vocal naysayer minority? What’s the Claritin or Zyrtec of bureacuracy? In a word: culture. Culture isn’t getting a coworker a card for her birthday, or an office-wide March Madness tournament. Culture is the cross-department set of unspoken assumptions that frame any conversation within an organization. Culture defines the realm of the possible, and in the case of government, it is a powerful exclusionary force.

What if your biggest fight you faced was outside, not inside your organization?

“Parashooting” change agents into an organization is great, but if you really want to inject innovation in government, target the support roles. Non-technical stakeholders have increasingly become the “blockers” in the true software sense of the term, and today, it is they, not the underlying technology that is in need of innovating.

If you want to foster innovation, when an innovator approaches a non-technical stakeholder, there needs to be a common appreciation for one another’s craft, and more importantly, a common vocabulary. I’m not suggesting the typical government alphabet soup of PRA and ATOs, but the type of shared perspective that you’d expect between skinny-jeaned coworkers at a stereotypical San Francisco startup. Heck, even GitHub’s accountant learned how to code in her spare time. It’s not impossible.

The missing punch

Looking back at some proto-open-data-policy brainstorming emails from Summer 2012, there was a third punch to go along side the one-two punch of policy and code that was the White House Open Data Policy, a punch that ultimately did not make the final version. There were three specific proposals to foster a more open data friendly culture:

  • Google-style lectures – Bring in the smartest of the smartest (Google, Twitter, Foursquare, whatever), put them in a bullpen, and have them talk to Government IT folks about what’s big in terms of technology today, how to, etc.
  • Conferences – Establish a fund to get government folks to private sector (read: outside of DC) conferences on technology
  • Technology crash course – 1/2 day gov-only bootcamp for non-technical folks to learn what’s out there. Open source, how easy it is to build an API on top of a dataset using Rails, etc. a.k.a, empower the government to become an informed consumer

What if every Wednesday 18F invited an innovator — a CEO or CIO of a prominent private sector company — to come inspire government employees, both technical and otherwise, to hear how their company works on a day-to-day basis and streamed it to anyone with a government email address. We’re not talking about a sales pitch, we’re talking a super-informal, Inside the Actor’s Studio style “ask me anything”. How do you handle hiring? Customer service? How do you decide which ideas to run with? What’s in your stack? How often do you deploy?

The idea is to pop the beltway bubble — expose otherwise isolated, non-technical career government employees, not to cutting-edge ideas, but to common-place practices well established in the private sector, to redefine the norm, to fold the map in half and bring a bit of the West coast to the East coast.

Empowering lawyer linebackers

Those three components — lightning talks, outside conferences, and targeted trainings — have the potential to unlock an army of lawyer linebackers, non-technical stakeholders that serve as a force multiplier for technical tallent, and ultimately the change we all desire.

What if when you first approached your general counsel for “approval” of your innovative new idea, you didn’t have to justify each layer of the technology stack — open source software, APIs, and distributed version control — but could say “hey, we’re launching a Rails app with a read-only API. The code’s going to be on GitHub”, and they simply responded “awesome, how can we help?”. What if those you relied on understood or at least appreciated not necessarily the how, but at least the why?

The common complaint is often that those empowered to truly affect change simply “don’t get it”. Let’s fix that. It doesn’t have to be a government-wide or organization-wide effort. Take a day off of coding (or more likely meetings) and spend it engendering a greater appreciation of technology among those whom you interact with on a daily basis, empower subordinates to spend a few hours working through Rails for Zombies, or simply attend a technology conference outside the beltway. Baby steps are what’s going to get us there.

We’re not going to turn a large, bureaucratic organization into a startup, nor should we, but by helping non-technical stakeholders to gain a broader perspective of the technology landscape, we can take a step towards building a culture where innovative efforts are the honored norm, not an unwelcome fad, and where our innovators can focus on technology, not bureaucracy.

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Earl Rice

What you are talking about is culture change. Culture change is something that will take years, if not decades. Thinking you can change an “Agency culture” over a short period of time is naïve at best. It’s link thinking you can jump from a dinosaur strait to homo sapiens in one big evolutionary chain jump. My Agency has had the same culture for at least 30 years, with no change in sight. The rules are: Follow directives, nothing more or less, show up to work on time, and try and survive local office politics as best as you can and until you can go someplace else. And, the not invented here complex is thriving, coupled with a corporate propensity for designing more and more layers of bureaucracy as a paramount business practice. And, may God help you if you bring in new ideas at the grass roots level. I tried that once, and after 5 months I learned quickly that they don’t want to change anything, unless it was invented by a contractor in the DC area (that happens to be a friend). They are happy with the way things are right now. And, if you are going to survive, both mentally and physically, you don’t try to change anything. Now, for the Interns and the Fellows, they are nothing but a blink of the eye as the pass through. And, any off them that are worth anything are long gone to the private sector on their time is up (that is if they make it that long).

You also have the Unions with their agreements. Ours has fought every technological change and improvement and refuses to budge from keeping the same processes used back in the mid 90’s, with no updates to take into account improving technology (they don’t even want to admit that e-mail exists in the contracts, let alone all the other technological changes since 1995 ….and this is in 2014). I read one report, where the Union demanded that a system of another Agency, that the other Agency owns and runs for the entire Federal Government, be immediately changed to accommodate the Union Agreement [and I thought , “right, that isn’t going to happen”, and all the lawyers on both sides signed the document, talk about needing a reality check].

When the current Secretary came in, heads rolled at the main office in DC, and the culture started to change. However, after 5 years, everything is just the way it was in the mid 90’s. Things htat were on the way to be fixed, well they are still broke. It’s a perfect example of how “culture” can grind you down. Great strides were accomplished in the first 18 months, and then just as quickly lost over the next 3 years. You push the culture, and the culture pushes back, and the culture has a lot more power, and this is at the Secretary level. A perfect example of this is David Petraeus. He pushed the culture in the CIA, wanted to change things, and the culture in the CIA fought back, and we all know how that one came out.

And, now the political cultures. You talk of all the changes, yet the majority of the Agencies are having their budgets slashed. Change cost money, one way or another (if not directly, then indirectly). And, there are so many charlatans in the DC area with “ideas” to sell, most of which are monetarily self-serving. The political reality is most of the Senior Agency leadership (at the appointed level) are in the bunker mode right now, just trying to get through with the fewest amount of scandals, hanging on until they can find employment in the private sector. And, and this is a big AND, it is a fact that the current administration is going to change in a couple of years. This is regardless of whom the next President is and which party controls the House, Senate, and White House. The leaders we have now will be replaced one way or another.

So, if you are talking about baby steps, you best plan on hanging around a long time after the internship or fellowship, and stay in the Civil Service well past retirement age, because it will take that many baby steps for sure, if not more.

Julie Chase

Wow Earl, you said it better than I could. Word for word, exactly. I have a manager who is innovative, but the dinosaurs keep the ideas at bay. He would like to see the paper tiger turned into a kitten, by communicating through technology. Keeping records on external media (we can’t use thumb drives) like CDs. Yeah, it’s old fashioned, but the steps are small and are being fought tooth and nail to produce “paper”. When the directive was read, there was no mention of records “shall be” in hard copy. My manager won that battle, but the war still rages. The biggest in the way is the IT Dept….or as I like to call them, the Dept of NO.

You are so right, when the election comes around, just the names and faces will change, that’s about it. Six more years….lay low, nod your head, show up, follow the directives and at the end of the day, close the door and leave it behind.


Policies. Directives. Laws that are ignored. The more I look into the roots of bureaucracy, the more I realize that it is a policy issue. There are so many policies that don’t make any sense. Policies that are outdated. Policies that are systematically and systemically ignored. Even policies that are illegal. Perhaps it is time to bring open innovation into the policy realm, with “open policy making” becoming the norm, whereby anyone and everyone can comment and discuss current policies openly, with the goal of 1) retracting them or 2) making them better or 3) Raising the awareness of the implications of non-compliance.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Either agencies are going to change, or the public is going to demand that these inefficient systems be dismantled. It is only a matter of time.

Earl Rice


The public is already sick of it. Once you leave the DC area and say get out into the Midwest, or the South, they are feed up with the bureaucracy. They are feed up with the Government wasting tax dollars. They are feed up with the Government trying to control every facet of their lives. They are feed up of the Government overreach. Those feelings are what spawned the Government shut down last year. And, if it was up to them, they would cut the size of the government in half (and do away with many agencies). And, here we sit in the middle. Trying to weave our way through all the regulations and policies (a reminder a regulation is based in law, or you could say the “rules of law”, policies are just things that people in a agency think ought to be done, but are not or only vaguely based upon legal precedent). We have, in DC, professional regulation and policy writers……that’s all they do….and have been in DC doing that for decades. They have no idea the implications of what they write. Then, you have the public that is feed up. At times I have been asked why things are the way they are, and all I can say is you go to that big domed building in the government sector in DC and ask the 2 houses of congress there why, and then you go up the street to that little Whitehouse and ask why it was signed into law.

The worst part is I see no change in site until the public forces a change. And we probably won’t like the change that will occur if that happens.

Carol Kruse

Ben, I LOVE your analogy that bureaucracy is an organism!! That will help me be more tolerant when I run into the dang immune system.

I can agree with everyone’s comments below, and add 2 things that struck me as I read your blog. 1) Cultural change requires enough trust of organization members to allow open communication, a web-like structure rather than the traditional hierarchical structure where you’re only allowed to talk to your immediate superior, no one higher (without invitation). 2) I would e.a.t. u.p. regularly-scheduled TED-type talks and open discussion-type sessions across the government about new ideas, etc., but, oh yeah — we’re not allowed to stream on our computers!! #2 requires the trust and open communication I mentioned in #1. The organism has become too distrusting and risk-averse of it’s own organs and cells for its own survival.

Continuing the organism analogy, cultural change is the equivalent of evolution. And, as Dannielle and Earl noted, this organism has studiously resisted evolution. That means that the environment, which HAS been evolving, will reach a point one of these days that the organism will be put in a position of sudden and substantial mutation or extinction.

For very selfish reasons I’d prefer to have the organism stick around, mutate. My daily hope is that the Gen X and Gen Y’ers among us will drive a positive, beneficial mutation before we reach the crisis point.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Right on about the public being more fed up than we care to admit.

But also a plug for good solid MANAGEMENT. Managers have direct contact with leaders and staff. Managers’ job is to stand as the springboard for employees so they can adapt according to changing times.

Contrary to stereotype I find that federal workers not only want to help people but so are EXTREMELY INNOVATIVE if only they are supported all the way. That means all ideas welcome, diversity embraced, fairness, opportunity for feedback, etc.

This support can and should come from management not just leadership. It is our fiduciary duty.

I say fiduciary because when we manage in a crappy way we actually cost the taxpayer a lot of money – as in 50 percent of projects failing – just the cost of that alone is staggering.