Drill Down

How agencies can accelerate innovation

Although its name does not shout innovation, accelerating the development and delivery of disruptive products and services at government agencies is precisely the aim of 18F.

Launched in March and housed at the General Services Administration, 18F is the most recent experiment to plant private-sector seedlings in the public sector. The hope is that agencies will benefit from a more nimble approach to solving key challenges. 18F employs digital technology experts -- including designers, developers and product specialists -- who serve as a resource for agencies to more rapidly deploy tools.

In a statement, GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini elaborated on the program's mission: "By using lessons from our nation's top technology startups, these public service innovators will be able to provide cutting-edge support for our federal partners that reduces cost and improves service."

Why is innovation critical to government? Because threats -- be they related to cyber, battlefield, financial or infrastructure protection -- are evolving faster than our ability to develop and buy systems to solve them.

Several currents whipping through the public sector right now are driving agencies' desire for a more structured approach to innovation. Agencies must identify ways to improve their efficiencies and provide innovative services despite leaner budgets. Government programs and projects are also being challenged to prove their value and relevancy to stakeholders and citizens.

For innovation to work, it is not enough for a creation or invention to be "cool." Instead, it must be purposeful and useful for all target users -- citizens, other agencies, soldiers, executive offices, etc. -- and deployable in a functional and sustainable manner.

HealthCare.gov is a textbook example of a highly innovative program that failed at launch because of poor execution, evolving rather than defined requirements and an ill-fated plan to go live during peak customer demand, among other things. Last but not least, HealthCare.gov came up short in what should be a priority metric for any government innovation initiative: making a citizen or end-user process easier and more productive than it was before.

For every HealthCare.gov, however, there is an example such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has developed a repeatable innovation model for success through a strong organizational foundation and clear mission. Building that type of sustainable culture of innovation requires developing a methodology and lexicon for innovation among decision-makers. When management and staff share a common language and understanding of the innovation process, the probability of creating maximum value improves greatly.

Based on my experience working with the public sector, I believe there are five disciplines of innovation that will enable agencies to take maximum advantage of programs like 18F. Each discipline acts as a force multiplier. In other words, a low score in one area greatly diminishes the chances for success, while high marks across all disciplines enhance the opportunities for success.

1. Focus on customer needs

Innovation can be applied to almost every aspect of an agency's mission, but that doesn't mean it should be or that it is efficient to even try. Agencies seeking to build a foundation for enduring innovation must zero in on initiatives that will have the most significant impact for their stakeholders -- whether they are other agencies, companies or taxpayers -- and avoid wasting time on low-priority, low-impact projects.

Agencies can take their cue from the Institute of Design at Stanford University. The institute has created an environment in which entrepreneurs can interact with users and customers as early in a product's life cycle as possible. That approach rests on the belief that ideas are cheap and success is about execution.

As HealthCare.gov demonstrated, there is much to be gained by acquiring feedback from customers and being able to pivot based on that input. That type of transparency is critical to ensuring that innovation efforts are directed to areas that matter.

2. Seek to create value

For every innovation initiative, it is important to apply the NABC (needs, approach, benefits and competition) framework to quickly define, create and communicate the highest value. That approach involves identifying important customer/citizen needs, defining the most compelling and unique approach to address those needs, analyzing the quantifiable benefits per costs of that approach, and quantifying why the chosen approach is better than the competition and alternatives.

The resulting value proposition should be polished through multiple iterations with peers and stakeholders.

3. Cultivate innovation champions

A program without a champion to drive it is akin to a ship without a captain. As good as an idea might be and as powerful an impact as it might have, it will likely drift sideways without someone to grab the helm and power forward. Champions are critical to accelerating innovation within an agency as programs run into a range of technology, bureaucratic and budgetary obstacles that require someone with the passion and muscle to overcome them. And that person is not necessarily a program or project manager.

Cultivating innovation champions requires that agencies attract and retain talented leaders with management experience and a track record for advancing forward-thinking agendas.

4. Build teams to support those champions

Although an innovation champion can push programs forward, a set of individuals with complementary and relevant skills is required to execute and shape what starts as an idea into a tangible deliverable. Team success requires an ambitious yet achievable program plan and a business model and processes that are clearly defined. Agency leaders must assemble the best team they can, which takes persistence and a refusal to settle for substandard options.

5. Realign the organization to match innovation goals

Not all agency cultures are built for innovation. Most are not. To create a sustainable base for innovation, agencies might need to realign the organization to match new processes, staffing structures and program requirements. Otherwise, groups might compete with or cannibalize one another for talent and resources, ultimately undermining broader innovation efforts.

In addition, agencies should remain open to a frank assessment of areas in which outsourcing could enhance innovation, even for those that are vital to day-to-day operations. For example, agencies might resist outsourcing customer service for fear of relinquishing their contact with customers and citizens. But poor customer service can be devastating for companies and agencies. Such experiences result in an estimated $83 billion loss for U.S. enterprises each year because of customer defections and abandoned purchases.

Some companies have proven adept at customer service because that is their core focus, and outsourcing that function could strengthen customer and citizen interactions for agencies that are not performing the function as well as they should.

Agencies can always produce reasons for why innovation is not a priority, ranging from an insistence that no change is needed and a fear of the unknown to the costs associated with new technology and the argument that past efforts failed. However, the launch of 18F and future like-minded programs will better enable agencies to dramatically change the way they approach challenges and projects.

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Reader comments

Tue, Jun 17, 2014 RayW

Comparing DARPA and the "healthcare.gov" and using the word innovation for both is to many of us, politely stated, not related.

DARPA was (is) attempting to find new uses for and to implement knowledge to help solve both unknown as well as known requirements and there was no forcing on the masses. The success was dependent on what folks wanted to do with the results with little skin off the noses of those who did not care (at the time).

Healthcare.gov on the other hand was (is) a political program forced on many and the success of which depended on the willing/unwilling participation of the country and was more aimed at political benefit, not so much the overall satisfaction of most of those affected.

Just my (and most of my office) view from a technical side of life.

(and the anon commenter does have several good points, the rules we work under make it hard to be "different", but that is true to a point in many massive companies)

Mon, Jun 16, 2014

This whole "innovation" buzz is getting kind of silly. We all innovate all day every day. A federal system with all its archaic rules and restrictions helps to stifle innovation. More money to upgrade systems and take care of customers' (i.e. the taxpayer) is what is needed. "Doing more with less" is absurd. The federal govt needs to upgrade its systems (hardware and software) and its policies to free up our natural innovative tendencies as human beings. That takes money. But, we seem to be out of money right now. Hmm......where did it all go?

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