Ask intelligent minds from across government to talk about innovation, and there’s one thing they all say: It can be a long and difficult journey. Time, technology, funding, collaboration, employee talent and the “F” word — failure — all factor in.
To learn how agencies have been enhancing their operations this year, GovLoop assembled an elite group of government experts and some private-sector gurus for a Wednesday online training session entitled “Celebrating Gov’s Innovations in 2021.”
There were many insights to consider, but here are key takeaways to guide agency innovation in 2022 and beyond.
Innovation in government means creating a more impactful service delivery model and acknowledging people’s lived experiences, so that agencies can serve them effectively. It means having the freedom to see what does not work — and knowing there’s a cost to keeping the status quo.
Key Insight: “How can we create innovation and simultaneously keep the trains running?” — A’ndrea Jones, Lab Innovation Portfolio Manager, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
A hard part of innovation is building the cost of those efforts into agency budgets, since innovations often don’t save enough to pay for themselves, at least initially. Change doesn’t have to be big (it can be incremental and develop momentum over time), but somebody needs to be accountable and somebody needs to keep people on task.
Key Insight: “It’s okay to fail, but it’s not okay to be wasteful.” — Gregg Treml, Assistant Inspector General, Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Dept. of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, Office of Management and Policy
An important government innovation is the GSA’s Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), which emphasizes an incremental, agile approach to innovation (tied to achievement milestones) and helps agencies learn from each other. It can feel lonely when you’re working on a project, so agency cohorts and communities offer vital support and collaboration.
Key Insight: “The technology is there, and now we need to take advantage of it.” — Raylene Young, Executive Director of the Technology Modernization Fund, U.S. General Services Administration
Innovation in government is not just the creation of something new; it’s how you get there. It results in a more engaged, empowered and happier workforce, and it can be non-linear — that is, particularly novel or unexpected. The VA’s Annual Investment Program helps foster innovation, but ensuring that people have time to engage in that work can be a challenge.
Key Insight: “It’s pretty impressive to see what people can do when they’re told ‘yes’.” — Allison Amrhein, Director of Operations of the VHA Innovators Network (Veterans Affairs Dept.)
From the perspective of change management, it’s really important to do things small and over time. That helps people adjust and lets agencies learn more about cost impacts. It’s critical to have a non-contractor in an organization who can understand the work and explain it. At some point, there will be a significant number of citizen developers, and so agencies will need to be agile.
Key Insight: “Data-driven is the future; you need to have people who understand the data and can build on that.” — Edward Dowgiallo, Senior Technical Advisor, Federal Transit Administration
The pandemic prompted agencies to adopt a more “citizens first” approach, and government as a whole has successfully worked remotely. Innovation is risky but necessary, and artificial intelligence has a crucial role to play. Personnel is a huge problem — there simply are not enough people available with cybersecurity skills — and so free training and teaching children cyber skills early on would be helpful.
Key Insight: “Cybersecurity is the catalyst for innovation.” — Kenny Holmes, Head of U.S. Public Sector, Fortinet
You must be able to harness data and be continuously compliant, and that requires significant automation. Cybersecurity can be a major challenge to innovation, and time constraints, competing priorities and employee skill gaps are among other potential obstacles. Change needs to be combined with strong and committed leadership, and people need to understand that not all digital transformation projects will be successful.
Key Insight: “It’s time that every program is data-driven. That’s the only way forward.” — Sridhar Vasudevan, Practice Director, Insight
Interested in more insights? Download an on-demand version of the training session here.