Innovation at the EPA

It’s hard to move forward if you don’t take a minute to reflect on what has and has not worked in the past. In particular, reflection in a government process can be valuable to facilitate breaking through regulations and legacy processes that hinder innovation. For this week’s DorobekINSIDER, Christopher Dorobek sat down with the former Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Ann Dunkin, to reflect on her tenure and some of the lessons she learned while at the agency.

During her tenure, Dunkin explained that technology had an unprecedented impact on how government operates. “Technology really has the ability to transform how we run the government,” she said. “This is on two fronts. One is our connection to the public and the ability to regulate community. The other is the impact technology has had on productivity and making us more efficient.”

The ability to foster better citizen interaction has been particularly helpful for reducing inefficiency in government. Dunkin explained that streamlining EPA’s interface allowed them to make it significantly easier for citizen to navigate government websites and find information. Through streamlined platforms, citizens are able to reach into the government and gather the information they need even if they don’t initially know what agency or department to turn to. For example, Dunkin and her team worked to consolidate FOIA requests online across agencies to provide a one stop shop for people to figure out what agency they need to be asking for information from and to get their request to that particular agency.

Dunkin also explained that government is further improving the customer experience by providing citizens with data and information across devices in a way that best fits their needs. “A tremendous amount of governments’ website traffic now comes in off of handheld devices, so we have solutions that are designed to be user friendly and have designed applications that meet peoples’ needs.” Dunkin explained that the user experience is not just about aesthetically pleasing webpages, but really understanding what it is that people need to accomplish when they interact with your agency and being able to meet that need.

While making government more efficient through technology has had proven benefits, it has not come without challenges. Dunkin explained the biggest reason it’s hard to make change in government is because there is a tremendous amount of infrastructure and processes that drive employees towards complacency. Additionally, there’s less of a risk of failure for government employees when they stick with the status quo. In order to overcome risk aversion, Dunkin recommended making some failure acceptable when it’s in the name of adopting new processes.

The biggest lesson that Dunkin said she learned in the face of challenges is that adopting new programs in the government is always going to take longer and be harder than you think it is going to be. She recommended not letting this deter you in your innovation efforts and to continue looking for opportunities to leverage resources that other organizations have already created. Additionally, she learned that you have to be vigilant of backsliding and encourage people not to go back to the old way of doing things when new processes get frustrating. “You have to be constantly vigilant and work with the teams to make sure they continue to progress down the forward moving path they are on,” she said.

Looking forward, Dunkin wants to continue encouraging innovation in the EPA and across government no matter how incremental it may seem. She concluded by saying, “I think the most important think I’ve been telling people is that they shouldn’t be afraid to take some risks or to change things because it never gets better if you don’t.”

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