When the new US administration took office at the beginning of 2009, all of us working in IT were positively surprised by the breath of fresh air that came from President Obama’s executive memo on Open Government, which would later morph into the Open Government Directive, and the appointment of young, capable and energetic individuals in key IT executive positions.
Since then we have seen an unprecedented wave of innovation coming from the White House – and more precisely from OMB and its Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, from OST and its federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and from GSA, with people like Dave McClure and Casey Coleman, respectively Assistant Administrator and CIO.
Open government, cloud computing, new ways of reporting spending, new ways of sourcing IT requirements, new ways to relate to IT vendors. The pace of change is really remarkable and almost every single day one can read about a conference presentation, a press release, an interview, a blog post that witness this constant willingness to change and innovate.
As I said, this is a breath of fresh air. But this is government. And government, for its very nature of being responsible of our collective safety and well-being, is an inherently more cautious organization. There are checks and balances and lines of accountability to be taken into account. Although many of us (and certainly most vendors) look at these as a nuisance, a legacy of the past, an absurdity in our digital society and economy, there are very good reasons for public sector organizations to exercise caution when it comes to new technologies.
While the role of movers and shakers is pivotal for any chance to occur, it is also important to be mindful of how much change the most complex organization on Earth is able to absorb, and how much rapid change can actually create value rather than enhance risks.
The latest interview given by my former colleague Dave McClure about the adoption of something similar to forge.mil in the civilian government is a great example of an innovation that would make a lot of sense. Allowing federal agencies to nurture community development the same way the education sector or local governments around the world have done is a no-brainer. But what if one puts this on top of open government plans, social media policies, cloud computing, new procurement approaches and so forth?
Sometimes government organizations that are tasked with innovation move from baking innovative ideas for the sake of improvement and change, to doing so to self-preserve their roles. I am not suggesting this is the case for the US administration yet, but there has to be some form of innovation portfolio management process in place that leads to prioritize all these wonderful ideas in such a way that agencies can evaluate, absorb and decide whether and how to adopt them.
As we are approaching mid term for the Obama administration, I wonder whether the measure of success of all these new roles will keep being the number of new ideas and pace of producing them, as opposed to showing any demonstrable (rather than expected) benefit as well as the ability of agencies to usefully adopt them.
This is not a race where a few folks have to win (and I am sure many will receive well deserved Federal awards by year end), but a long and difficult journey where no-one should be left behind. Slowing down and turning their head to let those who are training behind take a breath and catch up, may be more useful than sipping more energy drink and run.