To innovate, Trump tech office must prioritize users

Many administrations have tried to make government more efficient and innovative, but success requires flexibility and focus on the customer.

Shutterstock image: businessman grasping the light bulb of innovation.

What: "Enabling Customer-Driven Innovation in the Federal Government," a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Why: The objective of the Office of American Innovation -- the Jared Kushner-led federal revamp effort -- is, in Kushner's words, to run the government "like a great American company."

Making government more efficient has become a perennial goal for presidents, and for the Trump White House's attempt to succeed, it must adopt flexibility, focus on the user and provide oversight, but allow for failure, according to the report.

The challenge facing large organizations like government is to allow for the flexibility needed to adopt technological changes. 

The report's authors make the point that while it can be tempting to focus on new IT that can enable faster delivery of services, what needs to be addressed to make that new IT most effective is the government's "processes, services and business-model innovations."

This can include seemingly humdrum, but important, changes, such as streamlining payroll processing or circumventing cumbersome bureaucracy.

"This is hard in big corporations; it is much harder in the federal enterprise," the report states. "But that does not mean the task is insurmountable. It only means that much more significant change is needed: more than a few innovation pilot programs."

To achieve these goals, the authors recommend not only naming federal chief information and chief technology officers, but creating a new position: a chief innovation officer, whose responsibility would be to coordinate and spearhead innovation projects within and across government.

The authors also recommend expanding the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which brings in technologists from the private sector for 12-month government stints, and creating a panel within the Office of Management and Budget to which agencies could pitch their problems and solutions so that the executive branch can better understand the on-the-ground challenges.

The authors suggest that OMB document and promote individual agency reboots to offer a blueprint for success. OMB, they write, should also promote ways that encourage suggestions from the rank-and-file federal employees about what would make their jobs easier and more effective.

Matching the White House's emphasis on deregulation, the authors suggest that Congress might "temporarily exempt" federal agencies, particularly smaller ones, from the "straightjacket of federal rules" to evaluate and change their business processes.

The authors also push for oversight entities to get involved. Specifically, they write that inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office should call agencies out for not taking on innovation efforts and that Congress should not penalize all failed innovation attempts, so as not to deter future tries.

Beyond simply not punishing failed attempts, the report recommends that Congress and the White House make agencies' efforts to change the traditional ways of doing business an expectation on which they regularly report.

Verbatim: "To date, government innovation has been too often ignored, with one side of the political aisle pushing for smaller government and another fighting against cuts. Whatever one believes about the appropriate size and role of the federal government, all sides of the aisle should be able to agree that government should be as productive and effective as possible ... Within government, innovation is all too often a side issue, which gets attention once in a while as a fad or symbolic issue, but is not seen as essential to accomplishing the mission of government."

Click here to read the full report.

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