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Is There a Federal Formula for Innovation?

Entrenched bureaucracy, slow IT procurement, and organizational diversity can sometimes make it hard for government employees to feel encouraged to innovate rather than continue with the status quo. To address this concern, Dr. Gregory Dawson, Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, and Dr. James Denford, Associate Professor and Head of the Management and Economics Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, co-authored an IBM Center for the Business of Government report, A Playbook for CIO-Enabled Innovation in the Federal Government.

Dawson and Denford sat down with Christopher Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program to discuss some of the key findings of the report and to offer some actionable items to combat the stagnant innovative cycle in the federal government.

“No matter what happens in the upcoming administrative transition, there is a requirement for innovation within the federal government and it will continue to be needed from administration to administration,” Denford said.

One of the first steps in creating a more innovative government is to get support from agency leaders.

Part of the problem lies in the misconception by government leaders and employees alike that innovation remains a technological affair. “People just kind of step back and they say it’s technology and, therefore, it is for the CIO to handle,” Dawson stated. And if, by any chance, an innovative idea emerges from outside of the IT sphere, there still remains the issue of diverse approaches to how innovation is handled in and across various agencies.

“The conditions are ripe for an increasing and accelerating pace of innovation within the federal public service,” Denford stated. And there are some successes to show for this new sentiment; agencies such as 18F and USDS as prime examples of this. However, some players continue to remain inactive in the innovation process.

Agencies need to focus on specific steps to embed innovation into their organizations. The report calls for the need for process discipline. “A lot of good ideas are coming at all different levels, but at this point, a lot of federal agencies do not have a consistent way to handle those innovations,” Dawson explained. “The flower of innovation comes up, but it’s not tended to and, so, it wilts away.” Agencies need to create a process discipline, but Dawson cautioned, that it should not be so rigid as to disincentivize people from being innovative.

Important to remember is that “Government cannot keep doing what they have been doing when it faces declining budgets and increasing demands. Innovation gives government the chance to break down new trends, become more efficient, become faster, and become more effective. Basically, what we want government to be,” Dawson said. Therefore, agencies need to engage and foster their employees to be innovative. Then, they need to create and institutionalize an agency-wide, disciplined process to bring those innovative ideas to the forefront.

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