Is innovative IT acquisition all in your head?

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The federal government is coming up with new ways to foster innovation -- GSA's 18F tech innovation program and the Office of Management and Budget's TechFAR IT acquisition primer are two recent examples. These and other initiatives have started conversations aimed at injecting new methods into the federal IT buying process. But innovation, say those practicing it, is less about process than about motivating people to think differently inside agencies.

Experts say two of the surest ways to succeed are to look outside your own organization for ideas, and provide live demonstrations of how employees’ innovation positively affects the mission.

"If you manage parks, you probably want to talk to Disney," Laura Auletta, who is executive director for procurement policy and oversight in the Department of Homeland Security's , Office of the Chief Procurement Officer, said during a panel discussion July 29 at the National Contract Management Association's World Congress in Washington.

DHS, Auletta said, has launched a number of programs to give its managers different perspectives. She cited an executive development program that puts chosen managers up against a tough but solvable problem for six months to encourage them to seek new approaches. She also said the department has full time industry liaisons it can call on to address specific topics. DHS also reaches out regularly to small businesses for an outside perspective.

Other NCMA panelists agreed that acquisition employee job satisfaction and the resulting motivation can go a long way in propelling innovative acquisition thinking.

Top agency managers can now see data on job satisfaction within their agencies provided by the Office of Management and Budget. For the first time, said Lesley Field, deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, OMB is distributing granular benchmarking data on procurement employees. The data, she said, will give acquisition managers a better understanding of job satisfaction levels that might help inform how to foster more innovation.

In the end, Auletta and Field agreed, effective and innovative IT acquisition boils down to individual motivation among the people buying the gear or services. Tying those acquisitions to the agency's mission or, better yet, individual jobs that power that mission, can be a powerful motivator.

Auletta said DHS interns visit Coast Guard Cutters on temporary duty, or are sent to temporary overseas posts to see how their acquisitions serve the agency. Field said when she began in federal procurement as a Department of Transportation intern, managers showed her the agency's technical center, its accident investigation operations and provided other hands-on experiences to reinforce the importance of her job. "It resonated," she said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 31, 2014

Innovation is about knowing your mission, having federal laws in place to support it (or maybe not inhibit it) and money. Mission, laws, money. People will ALWAYS innovate. One doesn't need to preach that to people. They need the guidance, tools and money to carry out innovation. Many agencies, like NASA are lacking in mission and have no money, so innovation has been squelched to the point of almost not being perceptible. I haven't seen this low level of innovation at NASA in 37 years. I'm sure NASA's problems are not unique regardless of what surveys show (they always ask off-target questions and glean worker happiness from them - strange). People at NASA are unhappy because they can't innovate, other than innovating how to do less with less. You have to risk money to make money. The govt needs to throw some money at agencies, modify laws and provide clear guidance and stand back and watch them innovate like there's no tomorrow!! Where did all the money go? $1.2T to wars, but where the vast majority of the money go??

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