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DorobekINSIDER Live: Top Innovations of 2013: Looking Back, Looking Forward

A special edition of GovLoop’s DorobekINSIDER today. We’re LIVE! It’s the 11th time we’ve met and we are doing this at least once each month this year. The idea is simple: get smart people together and share ideas because we believe that the real power of information comes when it is shared.

2013 may go down in history as one of the worst years ever for federal employees. There were pay freezes, sequestration, furloughs and the dreaded shutdown. But despite all of the hardships government employees rose above the partisan bickering to make 2013 a very innovative year in government.

Listen to the Panel

Don’t believe me? Consider this in 2013, the White House unveiled a new Open Data Directive a Cybersecurity Executive Order and a new crop of Presidential Innovation Fellows all before most colleges went on spring break. And they weren’t alone. Arlington National Cemetery created a new app that allows visitors to find their loved ones tombstones to within an inch. Impressive. The CDC came out with a new feature to track the flu outbreaks across the country. And the Department of Transportation changed the way they train their employees by focusing on virtual events.

DorobekINSIDER Panel of Experts:

  • Jonathan D. Breul recently retired as the Executive Director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Previously, he was Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director for Management in the Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Breul served as OMB’s senior career executive with primary responsibility for government-wide general management policies. He now works as an Adjunct Professor for McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown.
  • Roger Baker, Former Department of Veterans Affairs CIO. Now chief strategy officer at Agilex, a Virginia-based provider of mobility, analytics and other technology solutions to the federal government.
  • Emily Jarvis, GovLoop’s online editor, DorobekINSIDER producer. She is also author of the GovLoop Guide: 20 Innovations that Mattered in 2013.

All of these innovations transformed the way government operates.

But 2013 was also a challenge for agencies. The sequester and the shutdown rock the government to its core.

Bruel: “The budget almost made the government un-functional. It is the root cause of a lot of the problems. If the budget woes continue down the path that it did in 2013, we will see the slow decay of government business.”

Baker: “The government is a tough place to work. It always has been and it is a very different place to work than the private sector. The challenges are bigger. The issue is that there is less and less appreciation for the work that federal employees do. There hasn’t been a pay raise in four years now. So feds are asking themselves, ‘Why do I keep doing this.’ There needs to be more appreciation for the caliber for the work that federal employees do. The failures are a lot easier to talk about. But they don’t really show the power and value of the federal workforce.”

How does government get its mojo back?

Baker: “Government has to get it’s mojo back especially on the tech side of things. There is no alternative. It would be wonderful to change the conversation and go back to the 1960s when government was king, but that is no longer the broad societal view. We need powerful leaders. Right now leaders in Congress are blaming feds, but I am not sure who Congress believes will do the work if they drive all the good people out of government.”

What worked in 2013?

Baker: “The Presidential Innovation fellows delivered. They are strictly paid to be creative. And it is working.”

Go Big

Baker: “The government is still taking on the big problems despite all the hardships. They are not shying away from the intractable problems. That takes great people. To see the government not giving up on these big problems is a really positive sign.

Breul: “The new budget deal is also a good sign. In order to solve some of these problems government needs an integrated solution where we work together. This bi-partisan budget deal is a good step. There are also some big innovations taking place on the state and local level. In Baltimore City for example they are using only outcome budgeting. They are having fun with it and getting things done, which is the best of both worlds.”

Government really is innovative

Baker: “If you look at the GovLoop guide, they highlighted 20 innovations for the year. There were probably 2,000 more that didn’t make the list. Innovation is taking a risk. Government is very risk averse but the only way to innovate is to take that risk. The key is to stop the programs that don’t work quickly and invest those funds in new ideas.”

How do you create an innovation environment?

Baker: You have to work for a boss that gets it. You also have to invest in innovation. We closed down a lot of legacy programs and were able to free up $2.5 billion to invest in new programs.”

Invest in employees

Baker: “The real concern is the brain drain. If people get tired of government and move the private sector. There are a very few number of people that are very critical. They are almost impossible to replace.”

Breul: “You have to remember that government matters, employees matter and we can’t keep beating them up without expecting consequences.”

Baker: “I am tired of reading headlines of what employees aren’t doing right. Government is an ecosystem and it functions as one. You can’t blame a failure on one individual. We need to stop creating scapegoats.”

Leadership trumps all

Baker: “In order to inspire innovation you have to focus on what inspires your employees to serve. For many if not all feds that inspiration comes from the mission. At the VA employees want to serve Veterans. They want to help improve their lives. Fundamentally all human resources is local. So managers need to ask, ‘what inspires this person.’ The manager also has to be the risk absorber. You can’t do much about the lack of pay raises. But you can insulate your employees from the fear of failure.”

Failure is expected

Baker: “35% of all IT projects are delivered successfully. If you are looking at healthcare.gov they are two months post launch and the website is working. That puts them in towards the top of the bell curve. No one wants to hear that. If we want that percentage to change we have to change our approach. We need to be more agile. We need to focus on results and we need to learn how to follow different results.”

Healthcare.gov not a tech but a management challenge?

Breul: “The failure here is a management failure. There was no person in charge of the rollout. There was no system integrator or an active manager. Now that the rollout was flubbed they have put Jeffrey Zients in that position and things are turning around a bit. But this was a management issue from day one, if they had addressed that issue they could have avoided a lot of embarrassment.”

How to spur innovation?

Baker: “You need a dedicated program to innovation. Then you need to fund that program. At the VA we put 100 innovative ideas into practice. Some of those are being run by the agency others by industry. The key is to prove the innovative idea helps the mission. Then you need to manage it like a venture capital firm would. You need to iterate quickly and if you are going to fail, fail fast. Fail fast is the term we used at the VA. It is ok to fail on a regular basis if the investment is small and you learn from it. Making sure you protect your employees when they fail is the best way to drive innovation. It takes a mindset shift.”

Breul: “It is all about management and leadership. You can’t take a relaxed view on innovation.”

Also check out GovLoop’s Guide: 20 Innovations that Mattered in 2013

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