Innovation Fellows describe their reality check

elc panel

From left: Greg Godbout, Vidya Spandana, Adam Dole and Lena Trudeau speaking at the 2013 Executive Leadership Conference. (Photo: Twitter/@rickholgate)

When Presidential Innovation Fellow Vidya Spandana started at the Millennium Challenge Corporation in June, she was promised four things: a small budget, a small team, a "treasure trove" of data to unleash and share with the private sector, and agency-wide support.

The reality, she found, was a bit different.

"There was no budget," Spandana told ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference attendees on Oct. 28. No team. "No access to treasure" in the "dysfunctional data catalog." And while she had "an incredibly supportive agency sponsor," what she found agency-wide was essentially annoyance.

"There was a lot of mistrust," Spandana said. "They didn't really understand why I was there." The one colleague who consistently asked questions, she said, was the general counsel -- not exactly the attention she was seeking.

Spandana's experience has been a common one in the fellows program, said Lena Trudeau, associate commissioner of the General Services Administration's newly formed Office of Strategic Innovation. Adam Dole, another fellow on the panel, agreed. "This is not a technology challenge," he told FCW. "It's a culture challenge."

Greg Godbout, the third fellow on the panel, was sympathetic to the opposition he's encountered as part of the second-year RFP-EZ team. Although the original RFP-EZ procurement tool was successful on many levels, he said, "it was not developed the way I would want if I worked in federal procurement." And for those not familiar with agile development's rapid prototyping, he said, the reaction to buggy first iterations was: "Great. Another broken piece of software I have to log into."

Still, progress is being made.  Spandana cultivated partners, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation's expanded data-sharing has put it atop a recent list of the world's most transparent donor organizations. Godbout and the RFP-EZ team have sold some of the doubters on the value of agile, and are rolling out several new "Procurement as a Service" offerings.  And Dole is slowly but surely extending Blue Button -- a medical records access project that originated at the Department of Veterans Affairs -- to more of America through the Department of Health and Human Services.  

Trudeau and the fellows said they were encouraged by the traction, however hard-won. The culture must change, Trudeau said, to "do it fast, do it inexpensively, and to do it right."

Spandana was even more blunt in her assessment -- a reminder, perhaps, of just how broad a culture gap remains. Contrasting the six-figure vendor quotes she received for different components of the data portal project to the nearly free bootstrap solution that was ultimately used, she declared: "The point here is that we're getting ripped off."

Note: This article was expanded and revised on Oct. 29 to clarify the context of Spandana's final quote. 

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of, Schneider also helped launch the political site in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times,, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.

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Reader comments

Wed, Oct 30, 2013 OccupyIT

"The point here is that we're getting ripped off." What a ridiculous conclusion from someone that just described what contractors have to deal with! She cited (in her presentation) hundreds of unnecessary meetings, nay-sayers, political operatives posing as technical gatekeepers, and a culture of stagnation. What was the cost of all their time and the delays? Easy to say it’s 'free' when you are not accountable for cost, schedule, or deliverables. Why should USG managers be given a 'free pass' for this and yet our contractors are directly accused of thievery when they show the cost of the reality of doing business with the USG! Should the volunteer for all these costs like the direct hires are? Oh wait, they get paid no matter what. Wow, nice misdirection by the naive and delusional. Of course, the fellows then get to go start businesses where they take advantage of their contacts to make money! Heavens!

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