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This is What the Future of Government Innovation Looks Like

Presidential Innovation Fellows with IFE CEO Kathleen Kemper (center) and John Paul Farmer (far right). Photo credit: Kevin Allen

The term ‘government innovation’ can seem like an oxymoron. But for a small band of disrupters working at the highest levels of government, innovation is actually the prevailing rule of the day.

On Thursday, March 13th, the Honorable Manuel Sager, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States, and wife Christine hosted an Institute for Education (IFE) Public Policy salon for DC-area policy professionals, members of the diplomatic community, IFE Stewards and members of the press. Officially titled, “Trickle up Innovation: How Governments Can Support Grassroots Science and Technology,” the salon explored the concept of using the government as a catalyst for private innovation, as well as integrating new ideas from other sectors to tackle some of our biggest policy problems.

The event included an opening address by Aneesh Chopra, the first Chief Technology Officer of the U.S., as well as a panel discussion featuring a number of current Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF). Chopra captured the spirit of the event, stating, “This decade will be marked by our ability to solve problems through innovation. It will be marked by entrepreneurs and innovators applying new tools and techniques to fix healthcare, energy and education.”

Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra addressing salon attendees. Photo Credit: Kevin Allen

In decades past, explained Chopra, innovations actually started in the public sector and then propelled out into the commercial world. For example, computing systems had their origins in the U.S. Census, which was then followed by the proliferation of use by IBM and others.

Given this history, continued Chopra, the Obama administration has launched four initiatives to return to that public-private partnership: first, open up government data to the public; second, bring public and private sector actors together to foster innovation; third, tap everyday Americans to troubleshoot problems through prizes and contests; and finally, bring outside talent into the government to work with agencies on their most intractable bureaucratic issues.

It’s this final initiative that was the focus of the event, which highlighted PIF contributions to federal government initiatives such as open data and citizen engagement.

“That’s why we started the Presidential Innovation Fellows program,” said John Paul Farmer, former White House Senior Advisor for Innovation and chief architect of the PIF program. “We believe that if you combine some of the best people outside of government, some of the best people inside government, and you gave them a concrete goal, they would figure out how to get it done in months, not years. That’s exactly what we’ve seen.”

As an example, Farmer cited the RFP-EZ project, which is designed to streamline the federal procurement process.

“We A/B tested a new platform that makes it easier for small businesses to sell to the U.S. government,” Farmer said. The end result was an average of 30 percent savings across government. Given that IT spending in the federal government hovers around 80 billion dollars per year, 30 percent is no trivial figure. “That’s real money,” said Farmer. “We’re still in the early innings, but we are incredibly optimistic about the results we’ve seen so far.”

Another example is the proliferation of open data for public consumption. “Thousands of companies are already using open data,” said Farmer. “It is fueling job growth, new consumer goods and products and services that are helping people all around the country.”

These initiatives were accomplished by bringing in a number of methodologies that are widely used outside of government: lean start-up, design thinking, agile methodologies, data-driven decision-making. The goal is to change the way government performs its duties.

Of course, this wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t already innovators and creative thinkers on the government side. “The reality is that there are a lot of smart people working in government before we got here,” said Garren Givens, current PIF working with the Department of Education and one of the evening’s panelists. “When I applied to the program it was with the knowledge that I was joining a story already in progress.” As Givens explained it, the PIFs are promoting a different approach, but they need their partners inside who understand the problems, challenges and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunities to change the status quo.

Presidential Innovation Fellow Hillary Hartley. Photo Credit: Kevin Allen

Hillary Hartley, a PIF working on the MyUSA project at the GSA, seconded that sentiment: “Government is not always the easiest place to get things done, but there are absolutely innovators within government.” Hartley described the role of the PIF as pushing boundaries and offering new perspectives.

“It doesn’t have to be better or worse, but if it is different, it can actually have a lot of value to any organization,” said Givens in response to Hartley.

Throughout the evening, the panelists discussed the current and future of government innovation, touching on the role of culture and the challenges posed by the public’s current negative image of our government, which has been fueled by the growing political rancor in Congress and the widely publicized difficulties surrounding Healthcare.gov.

But the event ended on a positive note. Hartley cited daily successes in online driver’s license renewal and electronic income tax filing.

“There are numerous ways that we all interact with government technology day after day, and those stories don’t get out on a daily basis,” Hartley explained. “That is the narrative that we have to get out in different ways. Government technology does work and there are people working hard every day to make sure that we can do business with government.”

The opportunity for innovation continues. The White House is currently searching for the third round of Presidential Innovation Fellows. Kara DeFrias recently made a very compelling case for applying to the PIF program on GovLoop. You can also learn more about the program by clicking through to the White House PIF website.

Additional Resources

  • Learn more about the work of the Institute for Education here.
  • Additional coverage of the event's proceedings, including event photos, can be found at the IFE event website.
  • Sign up to participate in GovLoop's Government Innovators Virtual Summit, and learn how to make innovation stick at your agency. Attendees can earn up to 5 Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits.

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