GSA's innovation aspirations

GSA's acting administrator would like to see the agency develop a DARPA-like 'heart and soul of innovation,' but experts warn that it would require a high tolerance for risk and failure.

Dan Tangherlini at microphone

Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator of GSA, has an ambitious vision for the agency. (FCW photo by Stan Barouh.)

Does the General Services Administration have what it takes to become an advanced research organization?

While speaking as part of a panel at the George Washington University recently, GSA’s acting administrator, Dan Tangherlini, offered his vision of the agency’s future: GSA, he said, should strive to be “the civilian DARPA.”

DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its mission is “to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.” In day-to-day terms, that means it funds and conducts research into innovative technologies, the kinds of projects that may have a low chance of success, but a potentially big payback if they do succeed.

DARPA was created in 1958 after the Russians launched Sputnik into space. A shocked United States never wanted to fall behind in science and engineering but always lead the way. Since then, DARPA has produced innovation, said Jay Schnitzer, director of the Defense Sciences Office at DARPA.

“So DARPA’s heart and soul is all about innovation,” he said Oct. 11, sitting next to Tangherlini at the event hosted by GWU’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

Tangherlini’s vision isn’t quite the same. GSA would continue to specialize in management, organization and procurement rather than advanced technologies. But he said he wants that same heart and soul of innovation to reside at GSA. He addressed DARPA’s reputation for developing creative solutions to problems. Its staff confronts challenges in interesting, unconventional ways and responds with innovative solutions, he said. GSA can be a leader for government on shrinking the federal footprint, acquisitions and technology, he said.

“So the question is, how can we be kind of the civilian DARPA then, maybe,” Tangherlini said. “How can we be the ones that help agencies combine and relate to each other in a way that they don’t even expect or think that they can do? How can we be a facilitator for erasing boundaries in the org chart, either literally by tearing down walls and getting agencies to co-locate, or figuratively by finding ways that agencies can cooperate and share?”

Tangherlini may be on the right track. Schnitzer said DARPA is keenly interested in cross-disciplinary research and collaboration with other offices, in and out of government.

“It’s my firm belief—and I push that on the rest of my team—that the major discoveries, perhaps the most important ones of the future, are going to occur in between and among disciplines, rather than within individual silos,” he said.

DARPA sets up programs based on selected ideas and officials appoint investigators and experts from various disciplines and fields to reach the solution. They can come from government, academia, or the private sector. The program managers are also given license to match-make, even going in directions that do not seem to match the initial idea.

“And that’s where some of the magic occurs,” Schnitzer said.

Overall though, a civilian DARPA would need a desire for revolution, not mere evolution.

To revolutionize, “you’ve got to have a pretty good risk appetite. Not only that, you’ve got to have a pretty good failure appetite,” Schnitzer said. “Nine out of 10 failures, if you’re doing revolutionary stuff, isn’t so bad.”

Yet, in government, failure is frowned upon, to say the least.

“Failure is destructive to an individual’s career and for an agency the repercussions are quite damaging as well,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said Oct. 18.

Agency officials’ reactions often are extreme too, as they set up policies and protections so it never happens again.

However, “avoiding failures came be more costly than the failure itself,” Stier said.

He said Tangherlini is tolerant of risks and possible failures. He is willing to try new ideas, even as he leads GSA through a turbulent time after a conference spending scandal that brought down its former administrator. But the outside stakeholders are not so accepting of failure. One failure can cause public ridicule, congressional backlash and investigations by an inspector general.

Officials who are attempting a risky project should try to get their oversight stakeholders involved, Stier said. They should also have some real return on investment, at least in part, from the project to show it is not a waste of tax money.

Tangherlini is on the right page though. Stier said Tangherlini’s Great Ideas Hunt has unleashed GSA employees to be innovators and contributors to solving problems. It was launched May 31 and by July Tangherlini had received 6,632 ideas. GSA expects the top five ideas to save $5.5 million a year.

While getting people involved is one piece, GSA is a grouping of little silos in itself, Daniel Castro, senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said Oct. 18. One part does real estate. Another part handles procurement. GSA also has offices dealing with governmentwide policy and citizen services. The agency is built for bureaucracy, he said. It needs to break down its own walls—which will be a radical change that tests the agency’s fortitude, he said.

While not as grand as DARPA’s creation of the Internet, GSA wants to find solutions to break down barriers and share the load of government operations. In September, GSA released request for information for different approaches to managed mobility. Managed Mobility would enable government to access information and data “on any device, anywhere, at any time.” It would complement with the Wireless Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative, which is a cost-saving procurement approach.

And that is how GSA may become the civilian DARPA. Tangherlini said, “To some extent, for us, it’s how can we be an even stronger enabler of agency mission in a cost-constrained environment.”

 

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