‘Is That Legal?’

Don't let lack of precedent stand in the way of breaking down barriers to spur innovation.

Federal leaders across the government want to improve their programs and the delivery of services, but often feel stymied by organizational silos or budgetary constraints.

In every corner of the government, however, they are finding ways to overcome these challenges and become catalysts for change.

At the State Department, Thomas Debass, who is responsible for managing the Office of Global Partnerships, said he stays within legal boundaries as he promotes collaboration with the private sector. But those boundaries should never hinder the capacity to build and strengthen public-private partnerships that can provide solutions to some of our most pressing challenges, he said.

As Debass and his team advance U.S. diplomacy and development around the world, he often hears the question, “Is that legal?” At times, he said, this question is not so much about legality as it is about a lack of precedent.

“It’s important to showcase how innovative solutions can be developed and deployed within the context of legal rules and existing policies,” said Debass.

Getting Out of the Office

In other cases, leaders have found themselves operating in a vacuum, lacking a means of hearing first-hand about ideas for improvements.  

Flora Jordan, an engineer with the Marine Corps Systems Command, found a way around this dilemma when she was given the mandate to design new, lighter body armor that would be as protective as existing equipment, but weigh less and be suitable for women and those with smaller physiques.

In years past, those in Jordan’s position generally had limited contact with troops when they developed new equipment. Jordan took a different approach, interviewing hundreds of Marines to understand their needs and concerns. In addition, she fitted herself with the heavy armor, went on training marches and collected data on what improvements could be made.  

As prototypes were developed, Jordan went back to test her ideas. “We never lost connection with the Marines,” she said. “I was just the translator of what they were telling me.”

Col. Robert Bailey, the former program manager of the Infantry Combat Equipment Office, described Jordan’s approach as “absolutely game-changing.”

Using Data to Prioritize Problem-Solving

For others, the impediments to innovation have involved resource and time constraints.

Jordan Manos faced this dilemma during the summer of 2017 when Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding in Houston, severely damaging or destroying thousands of homes and businesses. Before reconstruction could begin for many residents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was required to assess affected homes and commercial properties for substantial damage.

The problem was the size and scope of the disaster. “The damage covered huge amounts of land and an unprecedented number of structures,” said Quentin Cummings, a FEMA floodplain management specialist.

Manos, an engineer with the Department of Veterans Affairs on temporary assignment to FEMA, focused on finding ways to get displaced families back to normal life as quickly as possible.

In the aftermath of previous floods, FEMA would inspect each structure, but this approach was not practical since more than 100,000 structures had been damaged. Using the old assessment process would have taken at least 200 days to complete at a huge cost to the government.

Manos worked with his team and across agencies to revise the damage assessment tool Cummings had created, adding numerous new data points including a component that predicts the relationships between the depth of the flood water and the percent of damage that a structure sustained. As a result of this and other changes, FEMA was able to focus on 20,000 structures with a high probability of damage in about 60 days. This sped up insurance payments to residents and resulted in millions of dollars in savings on inspections.

Leading change in the federal government is difficult. There are always reasons to maintain the status quo and many barriers to overcome. But federal leaders like Debass, Jordan and Manos have found ways to sweep aside the obstacles and engage in creative problem-solving to better serve the needs of the public.

Meroe Park is the Partnership for Public Service’s executive vice president, overseeing the organization’s programs and its work with federal agencies. Nyla Beth Gawel is a leader in Booz Allen Hamilton’s Strategic Innovation Group, and an expert in the adoption of emerging technologies and innovation programs. For ongoing discussions around federal innovation, visit the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton and follow online at #PoweringGov.