Innovation vs. austerity: Who wins?

VanRoekel's innovation strategy might not be enough to counter the effects of the coming budget cuts. But then again, maybe it will.

Conventional wisdom tells us that necessity is the mother of invention. Unfortunately, the coming years of budget austerity could push that truism to the breaking point.

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel plans to do his best to make sure that doesn’t happen. In a speech last month to entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, VanRoekel said IT innovation is essential to the Obama administration’s plan to keep federal employees productive and maintain public services in the face of massive cuts.

As part of the new Shared First initiative, the administration plans to focus IT investments by eliminating duplicative systems and pushing agencies toward shared services.

In a similar vein, as part of the Future First initiative, the administration will focus innovation efforts on cross-cutting technologies that are likely to yield a high return on investment, such as XML and Web services.

VanRoekel deserves high marks for crafting a strategy that makes a case for innovation in practical terms. The question is whether the message will resonate with his real audience — federal IT professionals across government — once the budget cuts begin to kick in.

We constantly hear from readers who say their agencies offer no incentive for innovative thinking. That perception could be tough to change once agencies are forced to trim or even eliminate IT operations and programs. In many cases, a lack of funding will leave feds with even fewer opportunities to excel. Necessity could easily give way to apathy.

Nevertheless, VanRoekel’s approach could offer a path forward. By identifying specific areas of investment, the administration could concentrate the creative energies of its best IT talent. If it can sell agencies on cross-cutting services — not a given, by any means — the strategy could pay off handsomely.

For many people in public service, the potential for delivering concrete results could be a strong incentive and a powerful antidote to the ills of austerity.

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