Blog post

The Myth of Government Innovation

By Andrea Di Maio | October 24, 2011 | 0 Comments

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This morning I sat in a panel on technology innovation in the context of the ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference, held in Williamsburg, Virginia. The panel, which was moderated by Rob Atkinson (President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation), featured Lisa Schlosser (Deputy CIO at OMB), Peter Tseronis (CIO at Department of Energy) and Curt Aubley (VPO at Lockheed Martin).

Robert introduced the panel by showing that the federal government lags behind other industries when it comes to innovation, and the discussion revolved around why this is the case, how other countries succeed, and what are the key technologies to watch for the next wave of innovation.

The discussion was proceeding quite smoothly, until when a member of the audience made a strong point, saying that the panel had started, and was being conducted, on a relatively negative tone, assuming that federal government does not innovate, while this is not true. This question gave me the opportunity to highlight that there is no other enterprise in the world that is as complex as the federal government, given its diversity of missions. Innovation does happen – and has always happened – at the agency or program level, but it is more difficult to find innovation that works at the whole-of-government level. Be it open government, mobile, cloud, different agencies have different mission priorities, culture, technology legacy, and can absorb different innovation at a different pace.

My view about government innovation is that there are three types of innovation:

  • Enterprise innovation, which concerns all or most agencies at the same time, through mandates or centrally-managed initiatives: open government or cloud first would be good examples
  • Agency innovation, which concerns a specific mission or program, and is focused to solve a particular problem: an example is the use of data analytics to detect fraud with stimulus funding.
  • Individual innovation, which concerns government employees who become agents of innovation by solving a problem in a new way: examples abound in state and local governments facing major budget shortfalls.

Innovation can be successful only if these three different types are recognized and an innovation framework supporting all three is put in place. But today most of the buzz is on enterprise innovation, and this is an area where governments generally lag behind due to complexity and accountability.

The other myth to debunk is that there has to be an innovation strategy. Of course this is important, but in many cases government organizations are more ready to undertake a tactical innovation, in order to solve a problem that cannot be solved with traditional tools, assuming that the innovation will not necessarily apply to other problems. This idea of “throw-away” innovation applies very well to the use of social media, which can be applied very successfully to certain category of problems, but may not to others (see my previous post).

When we will start measuring and comparing the right things, and to provide innovation with a context, the picture will probably much less bleak than the one that was discussed at the beginning of the panel.

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