Can feds look to private sector for innovation inspiration?

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Federal agencies have long taken cues from the private sector on tech-driven innovation. The challenge is in the translation, however -- picking the best approach when profits are not the goal, and then finding a metric for measuring how well the efforts are actually working.

While not every private-sector approach should be applied to government, insiders at a Jan. 24 conference stressed that commercial business models can serve as a template for agency leaders in search of solutions. And that borrowing, they argued, is becoming increasingly important as the fiscal climate in Washington pushes agencies into a new era of cost-conscious innovation.

“Some would say there’s so much room for innovation when it comes to government effectiveness that just about anything would make things better,” William Lynn, former deputy defense secretary and CEO of DRS Technologies, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think that misses the point and overstates the problem. The U.S. government is certainly not an efficient organization – certainly not if you measure it by business standards."

The government is an innovative institution, Lynn added, "yet it’s not operating today to the degree at the kind of efficiency we need to as we enter an era of declining and constrained resources.”

That need for innovation and efficiency in the government hinges on technology, according to Carly Fiorina, former chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

“The reality is there is a huge necessity, a growing necessity, an increasingly urgent necessity to begin the work of reforming the government so that it is more effective, efficient and responsive. In my experience the only way to do that is when people decide to use technology to transform how business is done,” Fiorina said.

While Fiorina acknowledged that transformation is relative in the bureaucracy of the U.S. government, she also said that does not mean there is no place for it.

“In big, complex organizations, radical doesn’t work. However…transformation implies that the goal is actually to do something differently, not just do something that exists slightly better,” she said. “Where the radical comes in is not in executing or implementing…it’s in imagining what actually could be.”

That creativity – already under way in some agencies working to make do with less – means identifying clear goals that help government leaders discern how well their efforts are paying off.

“You have to have an end objective to the activity. It’s not just cloud for cloud’s sake…it’s really, what am I trying to improve, what am I trying offset?” said David Zolet, executive vice president at CSC. “In the government space, looking at the outcomes, why you’re doing it, and then measuring against the improvements on those outcomes is critical.”

The focus on objectives represents a shift in thinking for much of the government, according to Keith Trippie, executive director for enterprise system development at the Homeland Security Department.

“The government trends toward process-centric…there are opportunities here, at the macro level, to move to outcome-based metrics. What’s the value proposition? It’s those outcomes that are associated with doing those series of tasks or processes,” Trippie said. “Part of the culture piece is moving the government to less process-, more outcome-oriented measures.”

Measuring effective innovation also can mean zooming in as far as the individual employee level, added Michael Smith, executive director at NASA’s shared services center.

“If I have a loss in a company, I’ll know I’m allocating resources inefficiently. I don’t know that we can do this in government from an absolute point of view, but we can do it relatively,” Smith said. “We can compare outputs and the associated costs of those outputs, maybe even at an individual level – why is this employee able to do that at that cost and that timeline, vis-à-vis somebody else?”

Smith also said that beyond measuring costs, NASA emphasizes satisfaction – for both its customers and its employees.

“Specifically in our shared services center we measure all our costs and we sell to NASA customers ‘by the drink.’ We measure customer satisfaction – we just went from 94 to 95 percent in our customer satisfaction; that is absolutely unheard of,” he said, noting that his agency also surveys employees and culture, which further drives progressive transformation. “We need to evolve the ways we’re interacting with our employees, and I think this empowerment phrase is real. We need to find ways to empower employees to surface good ideas to drive innovation in the workforce.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Tue, Jan 29, 2013

Gobbledegook. To improve efficiency, all it takes is money. Lots of it to upgrade the IT infrastrusture. So after a BIG investment, the govt can operate more efficiently. Don't see democrats or republicans trying to get more money into the govt for IT across the board. Heck, they're rightly trying to reduce spending. The policiticans need to look where they're spending money. With a budget well north of $1T, waste is likely VERY rampant. BTW, govt process is not a bad thing. Govt tries to be fair and rocesses are set up to try to ensure that. Efficiency is secondary and should be, but I'd be in favor of actually improving the IT infrastructure in govt, but don't trash the processes. Govt does not make a profit, nor should it try. trying to make profit is competing with the private sector and drawing even more funds out of the economy. BTW if the govt competes with industry, who do you think will win? Always.

Sun, Jan 27, 2013

Sometimes process IS the goal, and efficiency is not desired. Keep in mind that the government must afford due process to its citizens. Efficient accomplishment of an agency's goal at the cost of a citizen's rights is no accomplishment at all. You may hear people complaining about the government forcing itself on citizens, but avoiding that may mean not being quite so efficient. Corporations can look at profit as the goal, but government must look at the citizen. It's different.

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