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Government stars rock the house at FedTalks 2011

It’s not every day you can find the best and the brightest tech minds and government innovators under the same roof. But yesterday it happened when FedScoop hosted FedTalks 2011 at the Warner Theatre, featuring a speaker lineup of what event emcee Chris Dorobek described as “government rock stars.”

After David McClure, associate administrator at GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, delivered his opening keynote on citizen engagement, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra took the stage to address the need to innovate, engage and get involved.

“This is an exciting time to be an innovator in America,” Chopra began telling the crowd, then suddenly spotted Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in the audience. “Craig Newmark, you made it. What’s up, brother? Thank you for coming. It’s like 3 a.m. California time for this guy!”

Chopra quickly resumed to the topic of the day, telling the crowd about the innovation movement he said has taken hold. As example, he spoke of Victor Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 5. After finishing high school, Victor didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do so he enrolled in a community college and waited tables to make ends meet. Moving from Texas to California, Victor enrolled in a technical institute and decided he wanted to design vehicles.

“Now, if you looked at his resume at the time he engaged in this job market, it wouldn’t be exactly obvious to you that he’d be the lead candidate for solving some of our nation’s most intractable problems, especially in the area of manufacturing,” Chopra said. “Yet, that’s exactly who Victor Garcia is.”

DARPA last year issued a challenge to reduce the time by 80 percent to design and prototype a combat support vehicle. More than 20,000 people participated, among them Garcia, whose submission Flypmode won the contest.

The Flypmode won “not because of his resume or his background or his credentials, in an RFP example, not because of his statement of purpose but because he produced a product that his peers from around the country determined was best in class,” Chopra said.

That design was then turned into a prototype production vehicle and in less than five months, the final version was driven to Pittsburgh, Pa., where the keys were handed to President Obama.

“There are Victor Garcias in every neighborhood, thinking about the problems of our day, our health care challenges, our energy challenges, our education challenges, the challenges many of us are cynical to think we can make progress on given the difficulties we have in Washington reaching consensus,” Chopra said. “There they are – innovators simply asking for an opportunity to shine.”

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry echoed his colleague’s ideas in his management keynote and spoke about innovation in the federal space and the importance of collaboration.

“Anyone who suffers from the misconception that federal employees aren’t innovators and aren’t caring about innovation just needs to look around in this room,” Berry said, surveying the crowd. “Every one of you is here, looking for ways to do it better, do it faster, do it cheaper and do it more effectively.”

After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, “OPM and HHS got a chance to do a little bit of innovation of our own,” Berry said. Within 60 days, the team had to create a pre-existing condition insurance plan for 24 states and the District of Columbia and then launch it. “And if that’s not a mandate for innovation, I don’t know what is,” Berry jokingly said. “But we did it. We did it on time and we did it with an overhead of 0.08 percent.”

It’s when technology manages to bring people together that it becomes the most powerful, OPM’s self-proclaimed chief people officer said, but offered some caution against allowing technology to become overbearing.

“That’s the overarching power of the Internet, the cell phone and the services and half-dozen devices that we use every day – they bring people together,” Berry said. “But if we’re not careful, our excitement with the tech can overshadow the purpose of that connection.”

Leaders and innovators “have got to be constantly approachable,” Berry said. An elevator ride could be used to interact with people instead of staring at a mobile device, he said, because the next big idea “that pulls your bacon out of the fire is not necessarily your idea.”


Posted by Camille Tuutti on Oct 12, 2011 at 12:19 PM


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