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Agencies Risk Backsliding If They Can’t Institutionalize Innovation

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This post builds on an earlier post which looked at the future of digital government, by including insights from the “Innovation in the Next Administration” event hosted by Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation on October 6th. The event introduced Georgetown’s latest report, The Architecture of Innovation, and included a discussion with Bill Eggers of the Deloitte Center for Government Insight, and US Chief Data Scientist, DJ Patil, as well as a panel led by the IBM Center for The Business of Government’s Executive Director, Dan Chenok.

In the first post, we looked back at the last two years with the US Digital Service. Progress has certainly been made by the current and previous administrations via established methodologies, new pipelines of talent, and some key successes. However, “much remains to be done structurally to establish the benefits of these new methods and hires. By creating institutionalized structures, the next administration can ensure that lessons learned from pilot innovations and innovators will be embedded into how government operates. Without a systematic approach to how innovation is structured within government, these interventions run the risk of being time-bound,” write Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman and Jessica A. Gover in The Architecture of Innovation.

During the event, the speakers dove deeper into the many of the key focus areas outlined in the previous post. Below are some highlights from the discussion.

Citizen-centric design: It is impossible to have a meaningful digital experience without design. As Bill Eggers stated, “It’s at the intersection of data, digital, and design where the real magic occurs.” With citizens increasingly experiencing this from the private sector, there is a growing gap between what citizens are expecting and experiencing from government. User experience is not just a method, but a mentality that needs to be ingrained across government to guide all citizen interactions. Leadership plays an important role in helping those on the front line understand its value and how to execute.

Secure technology that works: Unfortunately, security is often overlooked or past on. Still, everyone who takes part in creating the user experience, from the data scientists to the designers, has a responsibility to understand the potential implications and risks. DJ Patil drove home the importance of security during the fireside chat saying, “If you're training to be a data scientist and your curriculum doesn't include security and ethics, get your money back.”

Data for decisions, results, and transparency: “The White House has led the way toward expanding access to data and using more evidence-based decision making. The president’s leadership is critical for these initiatives to succeed. The use of data is crosscutting and requires collaboration across departments and agencies as well as across civil society and the private sector,” write Russon Gilman and Gover. However, agencies should be cautious about using data just for data’s sake, as Don Kettl, Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, said during the panel, “Data is not the thing we do, but the language by which we do it.” As often repeated throughout the event, the problem should be at the forefront, while the data and technology are simply a means for solving it.

Scale to size: Throughout the event, speakers pointed out that the groundwork laid thus far can provide insight into how government can scale digital. Government should use existing pilot projects to determine where they can be scaled and where they cannot. Where there are barriers to scaling, those should be tackled head on. An example of this is with Challenge.gov, which has been scaled to include over 640 competitions, with participants from every state, over $220 million in awarded prizes, and participation from more than 80 agencies. However, getting to this point required assessing all of the barriers, from policy to technology, and overcoming each one. Though that may be seemingly impossible, Challenge.gov proves it is not. In addition to existing projects, there are a few areas agencies should consider when scaling as highlighted in The Architecture of Innovation, such as personnel, policy, partnerships, and structure.

As we transition to a new administration, institutionalizing and scaling innovation in order to improve the citizen experience must be a central focus – a driving mission for everyone from the front line employees providing services, to the agencies setting their goals, to policy makers looking to improve overall government efficacy. This report and the insights from the event's speakers provide a framework to achieving that.

Darcie Piechowski is the social media and innovation fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

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