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Government Innovation Starts With an Army of One

The federal government is so large that changing it can seem impossible, but fear not – innovation begins with looking in the mirror.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo, a Design Strategist at the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Innovation Lab, said recently that individual feds can help reshape their government for the better. “The government is made up of public servants, and public service is about providing services in the best interest of the public,” she said at GovLoop’s Government Innovators Virtual Summit.

“I’d argue all public servants are innovators, but they may not always feel like it,” Corcoran de Castillo said. “We need to figure out how we can make them feel empowered and supported.”

She added that feds can assist government innovation by realizing they are more than a “lone wolf” incapable of helping the entire pack. “At the end of the day, each of us has joined the federal government to make a difference,” she said. “We want to make sure that within this innovation ecosystem people have a place in it.”

OPM’s Innovation Lab revisits stale government practices by using human-centered design to create new solutions for America’s challenges. Human-centered design keeps a human perspective in all stages of the problem-solving process, meaning the result never loses sight of the people it impacts.

Corcoran de Castillo said one of the Lab’s projects involved mapping the federal government’s innovation ecosystem and how each agency works within it. The map works on both the micro and macro levels, displaying how the various cogs innovate inside the greater machine.

“Innovation we found through this map means a lot of different things to a lot of different agencies,” Corcoran de Castillo said. “In that map, what are the different stakeholders?” she asked. “How do we relate to each other? Mapping that has made us better understand each other.”

The Lab now helps foster government innovation by sharing creative insights with agencies through an innovators network, thought-leader talks, publications and best practices.

The organization also brings novel approaches to designing user experiences, services, products, programs, policies, design strategies and design research plans for agencies. Corcoran de Castillo cautioned feds against becoming discouraged by the often glacial pace of government transformation.

“Change is slow,” she said. “The way our institutions are set up is to make the agencies’ flow difficult to navigate and full of rules.”

“We really need a few people in a lot of places moving the ball forward to be able to make our large institutions move and be responsive to the large, fast-moving world outside our doors.”

De Castillo said understanding government’s past can help feds better understand its future and how to best serve citizens. “Each of our agencies has a long and rich history,” she said. “We found that a lot of why our agency works the way it does is because of how it was founded.”

Quoting design theorist, economist and psychologist Herbert Simon, she shared this quote: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Check out the rest of our coverage and insights from the 2018 Government Innovators Virtual Summit:

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