Innovation agenda needed to solve national problems, report concludes

Darrell West, Brookings Institution

Darrell West of the Brookings Institution moderated a panel to discuss a report recommending an innovation agenda for the second Obama term. (Photo: Brookings)

Innovation could be the federal government’s antidote to marginal job growth and a slow-growing economy, according to a panel of experts who participated in a Center for Technology Innovation panel discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

But it needs to be taken seriously.

“Be aware that innovation is an overused buzzword,” said panelist Alex Howard. “What innovation often means is doing something differently in the way of culture, adapting new technology or processes. It is finding ways to get the best ideas and put policies behind them that make a lot of sense.”|

The panel discussion coincided with the release of innovation-heavy recommendations titled “A First 100 Days Innovation Agenda for the Next Administration” authored by Darrell West, founding Director for the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, and fellows Allan Friedman and Walter Valdivia.

Read: "A First 100 Days Innovation Agenda for the Next Administration"

The paper makes four broad technology policy recommendations followed by a series of ideas “to encourage an innovation-based economy.” The recommendations include:

  • Ensuring conditions that promote innovation and entrepreneurship in the private sector;
  • Leveraging the digital economy in a way that boosts government services and makes agencies more efficient and effective;
  • Enhancing digital infrastructure and providing data that allow the proper measurement of the 21st century economy, and;
  • Laying the foundation for a strong, educated, and innovative workforce.

“Our overriding theme in each of these areas is how to move from ideas, norms, structures, and regimes developed during an industrial period to institutions and policies for the digital world,” the paper reads.

Converting a federal government with 200 years of industrial-age practices to a well-oiled digital machine won’t be easy, and it will take time and potentially some risks, too.

“Government reform itself is going to take innovation and collaboration, and government agencies will need to promote collaboration,” Friedman said. “One large challenge is government innovation is risk-taking. The government is too averse to risk-taking.”

Panelist John Wilbanks said places for federal agencies to start include: Increased investment in cell phone towers, quicker adoption of digital textbooks and better use of data analytics to improve agency decision making in federal agencies. In addition, he said increased investment in entrepreneurship could pay dividends in the future and could help attract international tech talent.

While panelists gave high marks to the Obama administration’s initial handling thus far of technology, open data and digital policies, Howard said the administration gets “mixed reviews for finishing.”

Wilbanks added that the administration stands to gain from an increased emphasis on open data. It is important, he said, as other countries transition to life in the digital age – including England, which the panel said has an exciting ongoing open data movement – that the United States does not languish behind.

“When they make data open, the network has a good way of figuring out things to do with it,” Wilbanks said. “The administration should take that ethos and apply it elsewhere.”

Allen said federal agencies also need to identify risks in cyber-security, and said innovation could play a role in that, too.

For many in the public sector, Allen said, security is framed as an “added cost that nobody wants to do.”

When that is the framing, he said, “the first path of innovation is to find another way of thinking about it.” He called for better data security and management policies, more third-party opinions and for agencies to identify what their own cyber-security risks are.

Allen added that cyber-security has been “horribly implemented” with “heavy-handed regulation,” and said agencies need a reformed, transparent approach for risk assessment.

Note:  When originally published, this article incorrectly attributed Howard's quote, “Be aware that innovation is an overused buzzword,” to Wilbanks.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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