Innovation In Government: What the Transition Teams Should Understand

To get things done in the executive branch, it helps to have a solid plan.

Innovation isn’t something the public typically associates with government. However, there are more than a few scattered pockets of innovators across federal agencies who sometimes come up with startling changes to operating models, business processes, services, or management. Some of these initiatives are orchestrated from the top of an agency, but many happen organically on the front lines in response to a specific problem. How have federal approaches to innovation evolved over the past 30 years? Following are four of the more prominent initiatives over this period.

Reinvention Labs 

In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration’s reinventing government initiative promoted bottom-up innovation through a White House-sponsored initiative called “reinvention labs.” The initiative was touted as “unshackling workers so they can re-engineer their work processes to fully accomplish their missions” and it led to numerous innovations. Examples include:

  • The IRS used a reinvention lab to pilot an early version of electronic tax filing.
  • The Veterans Benefits Administration reengineered its benefits determination process at a lab in New York City that dramatically reduced processing time.
  • The Customs Service developed a partnership with American Airlines in Miami to expedite passenger processing. 
  • The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s field office in Minneapolis piloted the use of self-directed teams.

For the most part, units within an agency would seek to be designated a reinvention lab by the National Partnership for Reinventing Government in the Vice President’s office under the direction of its project director, Bob Stone. Sometimes, agencies would strategically identify projects to be piloted and assign a senior executive as its champion and scale successful reinvention lab projects, such as an Interior Department project to streamline the civil rights complaint processes across the department.

Each reinvention lab was granted streamlined authorities to waive departmental regulations (but not statutory-based requirements), which was an incentive for many to apply. Over the eight years of the Clinton administration, there were about 350 reinvention labs across the government. In a 1996 report, the Government Accountability Office observed: “Many of the labs are addressing issues that are at the cutting edge of government management ... more innovations are possible in these and other areas as agencies review and rethink their existing work process." 

The labs were good at developing new ideas and ways of working from the bottom up, however most never scaled across their departments or the government. This approach to innovation was abandoned at the end of the Clinton Administration.

E-Gov Initiatives 

In the early 2000s, during the George W. Bush administration, innovation initiatives tended to be technology-centered and orchestrated from the top. A series of E-Government initiatives changed business models and service delivery in a number of high-profile areas. A three-part E-Gov agenda was developed under the direction of Mark Forman, who was appointed as the Office of Management and Budget’s first “Associate Director for E-Government and IT” (this position was eventually re-designated as the federal government’s chief information officer).

  • The first part was dubbed “Project Quicksilver” (described in more detail by Dan Chenok in an earlier blog post), which developed a portfolio of 25 cross-agency initiatives that showed the greatest potential for improved service to four portfolio groups: citizens, businesses, state and local governments, and government employees. 
  • The second part was the development of a Federal Enterprise Architecture and the creation of a new position of Chief Architect, a post first held by former U.S. Postal Service Executive Norm Lorentz. 
  • The third part was the creation of shared services for lines of business that were common across agencies such as payroll, financial management, human resources, and grants management.

An Innovation Strategy 

The Obama Administration’s approach to innovation was also top-down and technology oriented, but more strategic. It was largely led out of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, initially under the leadership of Aneesh Chopra, the first Chief Technology Officer, and his deputy Beth Noveck. They developed a three-prong approach, as described in a report for the IBM Center:

  • Creating new institutional roles for innovation leadership.The Administration created a series of new leadership roles to institutionalize and integrate innovation into government operations. The White House created the roles of chief technology officer and chief data scientist, and many departments followed suit in their own agencies. Some agencies even created the position of chief innovation officer. The Administration also brought on new talent via the creation of the Presidential Innovation Fellow program to attract technologically-skilled individuals from academia and the private sector.
  • Creating policies and legal frameworks to support innovation. This included initiatives such as crafting a common set of Terms of Services with social media providers, thereby allowing agencies to use social media platforms to innovate in the delivery of services and information. It also included the Open Government directive, to improve digital services; the Open Data policy making government data open and machine-readable, and the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which led to more transparency in government spending data.
  • Creating new technology and organizational platforms. An example of a technology platform is the Open Data portal, which is a one-stop shop for over a quarter million federal data sets. Examples of organizational platforms include the creation of Innovation Labs in agencies (such as the Office of Personnel Management and the Environmental Protection Agency), the U.S. Digital Service in the White House, and the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies in the General Services Administration.

The strategy began the process of weaving innovation into the fabric of government, leading to agency-level efforts to change their operating culture to be more innovative by finding and championing the innovators in the system, connecting them, and providing them the tools to succeed.

Public-Private Innovation 

The current administration promotes public-private innovation via a series of governmentwide and agency-level efforts. It has built on the foundations from preceding administrations such as the continued development of the governmentwide U.S. Digital Service under Matt Cutts and GSA’s Technology Transformation Services, formerly led by Anil Cheriyan, which “applies modern methodologies and technologies to improve the public’s experience with government.” TTS helps federal agencies build, buy and share technology to achieve their mission-specific digital transformation and modernization goals. Both efforts draw heavily on private sector talent to advance their efforts.

In addition, there are agency-centric, small offices embedded across the government, such as:

  • The Defense Innovation Unit, which accelerates the adoption of commercial technologies to address national security issues
  • The Center for Digital Development in the U.S. Agency for International Development, which strategically researches emerging trends in commercial digital technology that may be applicable in developing economies, and
  • The Census Bureau’s xD Program, which is also an emerging technology lab applying AI to government problems.

A more in-depth example of an agency-level public-private innovation unit, the Commerce Department’s Opportunity Project, demonstrates the adoption of agile principles in solving problems.

The Opportunity Project (TOP) serves as a catalyst in adapting agile techniques to solve complex agency mission problems through a process that brings together agencies, industry, and citizens. The Project’s website says its goal is to be “a process for engaging government, communities, and the technology industry to create digital tools that address our greatest challenges as a nation. This process helps to empower people with technology, make government data more accessible and user-friendly, and facilitate cross-sector collaboration to build new digital solutions with open data.”

TOP works with other federal agencies to identify significant challenges, and then facilitates partnerships among agency leaders, industry and non-profit innovators, and citizen users to collaborate as teams in developing innovative approaches to address those challenges. The teams leverage agile techniques to build prototype technology and process solutions over a 12-14 week time frame, and then show their work to the public so that agency stakeholders from all sectors can learn from and adapt the solutions. TOP represents a unique, cross agency program that provides a model for how agencies can work with private sector partners to develop practical approaches to complex problems in an agile, iterative fashion.

Lessons Learned 

Efforts to institutionalize innovation have moved from ad hoc approaches to a more systematic effort over the years in the federal government. Two IBM Center reports chart the lessons:

  • Sandford Borins, in his 2014 observations of two decades of Ford Innovation Award winners, encourages practices similar to those of the reinventing government era: encourage frontline involvement, create communities of practice, support local heroes, measure and report on results.
  • Beth Noveck and Stefaan Verhulst ’s 2016 report for the center highlights ways to institutionalize innovation on a larger scale: Expand the analytic capacity of agencies; promote a culture of innovation by creating key positions such as chief knowledge officers, and prioritize evidence-based innovation via evidence and testing. One of Noveck’s recommendations that may be particularly timely is the incorporation of an innovation ethos into presidential transition teams by including IT and data scientists on every transition team.

This post is part of a series developed by the IBM Center for The Business of Government that reflects on lessons from past government reform efforts. Listen to the podcast discussion here.