Innovation in government starts with being intentional

An industry leader argues that it's good to keep the "dinosaurs" on their toes.

Don't be a cog in the machine

Two people I admire as innovative thinkers about government -- Steve Kelman and Stan Soloway -- have sparked much-needed discussion in the federal community lately on topics critical to the success of the next administration: innovation in government (including the role of contractors), "one-size-fits-all" contracting and the possibility that acquisition might be a catalyst for -- instead of an impediment to -- innovation. (Yes, you read that last item right!)

In my job, I see both the challenges that stymie innovation and the opportunities to disrupt (positively) the status quo every day. Let's take the first topic -- innovation in the federal government and the role of federal contractors.

In Kelman's piece on innovation in the federal contracting community, he cites his conversation with a longtime senior executive at a large federal contractor. His source argues that the fact that federal contractors "missed" the cloud, thereby creating an opportunity for commercial entities such as Amazon Web Services to enter the market, is a sign of market inefficiency or a lack of innovation.

I disagree. I view it as a sign of the federal contracting market's health. Why? Because it shows how an outside-the-Beltway tech innovator can successfully do business with the federal government. And now that cloud technology is here, innovative government leaders, their teams and many of the contractors that support them are actively implementing the technology in new ways. That's the sign of a functioning marketplace -- not the opposite.

My firm had zero presence in this market 15 years ago, but we saw an opportunity to bring new solutions from leading brands and government clients from around the world to meet the emerging needs of the federal government. And the market has indeed proven open to a company with new ideas and innovations.

I certainly hope that other new market entrants -- be they large or small businesses -- that make a strategic bet on the federal government have the same opportunities for success because that is a sign of market innovation, not stagnation.

And just as Soloway warned that government can't take a one-size-fits-all approach to IT acquisition, we should not apply a single generic label to all federal contractors (as Kelman's industry executive appears to do). After all, according to the Office of Management and Budget, some 170,000 companies serve the government.

Are there some "dinosaurs" pushing the same solutions delivered by the same people for decades? Of course. But for every dinosaur, there are dozens of imaginative ways to use digital technology, design thinking and data to solve vexing government problems. And in the end, the dinosaurs become irrelevant and the innovators win.

And although Kelman's article focuses on the role of contractors in innovation, it overlooks the critical role that contractors play in the execution and implementation of programs. Pick your favorite government innovation, IT system or major transformation program of the past 25 years, and you will probably find that some dedicated, passionate contractors played an important role in making it a reality.

Lastly, innovation and co-creation can indeed be sparked (or blocked) by requests for proposals. Many of the responses to Kelman's blog posts focus on the government's RFP process. Although I agree that it is not exactly a catalyst for innovation, there are signs of change -- and we in industry can do more to encourage it.

According to analysis of the IT Dashboard by Deloitte's Center for Government Insights, agile and iterative development methods accounted for 20 percent or less of all federal IT investments until 2011, but that percentage has risen dramatically in the past few years.

The increase can be seen, for example, in an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services' Buyers Club. Its approach is helping to shift government procurement from a sense that the agency was entering into a "blind marriage" with industry to a more collaborative, collective acquisition process that involves all stakeholders early in an agile-oriented service implementation model.

Together, industry and government can do more to end those blind marriages. To me, it is more exciting and interesting to develop functional prototypes or staged contracts or use incentive prizes and challenges. Wouldn't it be more fun to approach our work that way instead of through a 500-page document? What can we do to respond differently to RFPs in order to really engage our clients?

Opportunities for greater innovation exist within companies as well. There are a lot of ideas out there, and the smartest contractors are determining which ideas are most relevant to their clients' needs, scalable or truly transformative in the federal market. Those efforts can take the form of full-blown, carefully structured initiatives or as well-directed conversations with clients.

But at the end of the day, it all starts with intent. The best contractors and the best government leaders intend to innovate on behalf of the American people. We now need to collectively create the environment to harness that intent and turn it into outcomes.

And that environment should weed out dinosaurs that aren't innovating and aren't performing and replace them with those of us who have the intent and ability to do what government and its citizens need us to do: innovate and perform.

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