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Meet NARA’s First Chief Innovation Officer – Part 1

Innovation is one of those Rorschach terms, where innovation means different things to different people. Even amongst Chief Innovation Officers the role of innovation at an agency can vary greatly. So what really makes an innovative program?

Pamela Wright is the first ever Chief Innovation Officer at NARA. She was also named one of FCW’s Fed 100 winners. Wright told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program, in part one of her interview, that having a Chief Innovation Officer is essential because the government can not continue down the same road it has been following for the past 10 years. (Click here for part two of the interview)

“The Innovation Officer role comes at a really opportune time for our agency, because it is coming at a time when budgets are very tight and we have to do more with less. We have to think in new ways in order to accomplish that, but it is also coming at a time when technology is busting with possibilities. Peoples expectations with how they are communicated with and how they receive information is changing very rapidly too. All of that pulls together under the umbrella of innovation,” said Wright.

How do you define innovation?

“For me, at NARA, what innovation means is the intersection of understanding what the business needs are and what the public wants. Once you have that understanding, innovation is taking those new technologies that are out there to help us deliver. That also works its way back to the work that we do within the agency,” said Wright.

One of the fears is that if there is an innovation officer, no one else has to be innovative?

“I don’t see that happening too much here, mostly I see people recognizing that innovation is important. I think a lot of folks are innovating on their own, it certainly isn’t just my job. What I am here to do is raise that profile, to say ‘it is ok to start thinking and talking about ways that we can do things differently and it is also ok to ask about technologies and tools that should be available to make the work better.’ A few years ago people would think that social business tools and some of the new technology didn’t really have anything to do with their work for the mission of the agency, but as we have done projects and had successful pilots people actually see that we are improving our efficiency and our ability to fulfill the mission of the agency,” said Wright.

  • Example of Success: Last year we launched our Internal Collaboration Network. The network uses a social business tool that allows our 3,500 people from across the agency to talk to each other very easily. They can communicate on a network that breaks down those physical barriers. You don’t have to know who exactly to call. You don’t have to know who in the agency around the country might have the answer, you could put it out on this social collaboration platform and folks could say, ‘I am working on Courthouse records is anyone else working on these?’ If you have a question you can ask. Somebody in California can answer a question for someone in Atlanta. It is done quickly and collaboratively,” said Wright.

What have you learned in the last year?

“For innovation to be effective, it really needs to be grounded in the mission of the agency. There are a lot of great ideas out there, but where great ideas catch fire and do good things is when you have people that really understand the mission of the agency and they are exposed to people who are very comfortable with new technologies,” said Wright.

  • Example of Success: “Our staff has for a long time created something called, ‘Today’s Document for Years.’ Our staff pulls out a document from the vast NARA holdings, this day in history kind of a thing, and posts it on our website. That has happened for a long time. It provides a little bite of access to our records everyday. But one employee who understands technology and has been working on different platforms, found that Tumblr was the perfect platform for that one picture a day with a little bit of information. So he pulled those two things together and started a Tumblr blog, called ‘Today’s Document.’ He now has 150,000 followers. He did that by re-purposing some work we had already done with digitization and got it out there. He has done this without a lot of money or resources and it has gotten us 150,000 followers that we otherwise wouldn’t have had,” said Wright.

How do you deal with failure?

“That’s where a lot of resistance to using tools comes from. You want to be very mindful of taxpayer dollars. The best way to overcome or work with that fear is to have pilot projects. The wonderful thing about a pilot project is you can build in failure from the start. You can say, ‘we are going to try this and if it fails we will document that and learn from our mistakes.’ You can put these projects in innovative chunks that people can deal with by putting it into a pilot project,” said Wright.

For more on the role of innovation in government check out –DorobekINSIDER LIVE: From the Frontlines of Innovation 2.19 at 12pm EDT.

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