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Editorial: Innovation, a measure of leadership

Jul. 28, 2014 - 11:53AM   |  
By STEVE WATKINS   |   Comments
Steve Watkins, Managing Editor of Federal Times.

Everyone complains about the lack of innovation in government. Few people do anything about it.

But don’t blame federal employees or managers; blame their leaders. The truth is that innovation, speed and agility are all anathemas to the government’s bloated bureaucracies.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it well in a chapter titled “Waging War on the Pentagon” in his book “Duty.” He said:

“The very size and structure of the department assured ponderousness, if not paralysis, because so many different organizations had to be involved in even the smallest decisions. ... If that gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy was to support the war fighter effectively and with speed, the initiative would have to come from the top. More often than not, that means bypassing the bureaucracy and regular procedures and running the effort directly from my office.”

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As secretary, Gates did just that in order to quickly field tens of thousands of lifesaving Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan. He likewise circumvented the Pentagon bureaucracy when he created a special unit — the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) — to quickly solve the immediate problem of improvised explosive devices being used to great effect by our enemies on the battlefield.

Innovation, of course, comes in many shapes and sizes. It could be a transition to the cloud, a pilot project to test a new collaborative health-care approach, a mobile app that can revolutionize how feds manage their caseloads, or a novel way to achieve better outcomes when responding to disasters.

At the Defense Health Agency, Chief Innovation Officer Rachel Foster (featured in our Executive One-on-One interview this week) catalyzes innovation by doing what Gates did: detouring new ideas around the numerous bureaucracies that would normally weigh in and delay or squelch them.

Her strategy is to pull promising ideas from the field and then boot them up to the top leaders in military health for approval to pilot them and, if successful, diffuse them.

It’s an effective strategy because, as most feds know, when the middle layers of a bureaucracy see a new idea bubble up from below, all sorts of delays and hurdles can and do happen. But when those ideas come from above — along with a ticking decision clock, in which no answer equals a yes — bureaucracies magically become more responsive.

But this strategy only works when top leaders are active champions of innovation and are willing to take firm stands when the inevitable bureaucratic resistance or turf battles appear. Federal leaders — and their congressional overseers — must also be thick-skinned enough to live with small-scale failures, because innovation is necessarily a risky business.

So the dearth of innovation in the federal sector should not be chalked up to a lack of ideas. It must be chalked up to a lack of strong leadership. And in this age of fast-evolving technology and tight budgets, innovation must be embraced more than ever by top federal leaders as a strategic tool for advancing their agencies’ missions, efficiencies and effectiveness.

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