Wish they all could be... (Part II)

How can the innovation culture of Silicon Valley help government technology? Two experts count the ways.

Wikimedia image: Silicon Valley.

In November, we offered some initial thoughts about recent efforts to build bridges between the tech community (especially in Silicon Valley) and the federal IT leadership in Washington. We did so as longtime advocates for public/private collaboration. We appreciate the positive comments we've received about that column and offer more on the subject.

Both sectors are fortunate that one of the key players in this effort is Tony Scott, from the Office of Management and Budget. Tony is smart, patient and a terrific listener with humor and grace. He knows Silicon Valley, and he has quickly learned about life in D.C. Therefore, we're starting a grass-roots movement to retain him as the federal CIO in the next administration.

There is some confusion about the nature of the problem we are trying to solve. Everyone seems to assume that every new widget designed by five capable engineers in San Jose has value at the federal level. The goal -- of both startups and their investors -- is simply to sell at the federal level. But no one is asking what should be the central question: What problem is being addressed? And no one seems to be asking the classic CIO questions: Is it a closed-marketplace problem? Or is it a product/solution problem?

As we all learned in high school science years ago (and most of us have relearned as business executives or technologists), the key is to ask the right questions. Opening the federal marketplace simply so agencies can buy the latest shiny software or have access to the newest, hippest app -- whether or not it actually solves a problem at scale -- is a fundamental error.

Innovation for the sake of innovation (independent of any business analysis) is embarrassing. In our opinion, innovation is not something that can be purchased and installed. Innovation is the result of creative thought and changed behavior. Software is just software, and the purchase of new software (however modern in construct) will not alter institutional behavior that inhibits information sharing because of siloed systems.

During his California visit, Tony presented the intriguing notion of Innovation Zones, launched with federal support, that would encourage experimentation. Not a bad idea and one well worth exploring. One could view the opening of offices in Silicon Valley by the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department as the beachhead for such a zone in California.

But there are thousands of hackathons and maker communities and tech clusters already in progress, both within and beyond the U.S. The absence of any coordination and shared lessons learned needs attention and assistance. Otherwise, new Innovation Zones will suffer the same results -- lots of fervent activity but little long-lasting value. Velocity without knowledge isn't a solution; it's just hyperactivity without maturity or true benefit.

We aren't the first to express concern about the hubris of Silicon Valley "genius." We worry less about that than about those in senior IT roles in the federal government who actually believe the hype. The venture capital business model conveys a key truth that many in Washington are choosing to ignore: Venture capitalists are wrong 90 percent of the time. That's perhaps a worse failure rate than the federal government's track record of delivering IT systems that are over-budget, behind schedule and unable to deliver the promised functionality.

The federal government might indeed need new partners. But those partners should be focused on improving the lives of citizens with new ideas and ways to manage change, not just with new software or apps.

The views expressed are the authors' own and do not represent the position of Cisco Systems.

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