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How will Trump’s innovation SWAT team stand apart from previous ones?

March 29, 2017 (Photo Credit: GSA/18F)
The Trump administration’s new Office of American Innovation is the latest in a recent tradition of new federal programs aimed at mimicking industry, but the possibility for private sector collaboration has many seeing new potential.

The White House unveiled the new office on March 27, tasking senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to head up the project, which seeks to incorporate private sector and other “external thought leaders” to help craft new solutions to improve government services.

“The Office of American Innovation will bring a creative and strategic approach to many critical issues and intractable problems that affect Americans’ quality of life,” said Kushner in a statement. “We have an opportunity to identify and implement solutions by combining internal resources with the private sector’s innovation and creativity, enabling the federal government to better serve Americans.”

If the idea of collaborative progress sounds familiar, it’s because it has been happening within pockets of the federal government where innovation is the proverbial carrot agencies are striving toward.

The last time an administration bandied the innovation SWAT team example around, it was former President Barack Obama, who sought to imbue Silicon Valley imagination into the federal government with projects like the U.S. Digital Service, 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows.

The Trump administration has pledged to retain those programs, but the question becomes what role will their experience play in the new innovation office and how will they collaborate with private sector partners.

“USDS and 18F exist to help the rest of government deliver the services they are tasked with delivering in the best possible way,” said Aaron Snow, former 18F executive director and current chief operating officer at cBrain North America.

“When technology can help and when tools and methodologies that agencies aren’t currently familiar with or don’t have a lot of folks that are skilled [to implement] then those organizations can help a lot.”

Kushner has also expressed support of USDS and 18F — which have developed original IT solutions for the government — but some industry stakeholders see acquisition reform as a key issue to ensuring the Office of American Innovation’s collaboration is successful.

“There are great companies all over the country that can offer innovative IT solutions if we use IT acquisition approaches that encourage industry to bring in innovative new ideas,” said Dave Wennergren, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Professional Services Council.

“I think part of the challenge sometimes of an organization like 18F was that it was intriguing to them to do the work themselves — which is a fine way to demonstrate the art of the possible — but for an $80 billion IT budget, there’s no way that an in-house small IT team can take care of the major IT investments of the federal government.”

But many of the hurdles in trying to make government more innovative swirl around the strum and drang of retrofitting the tech sector’s speed with the deliberative pace of the public sector.

“The rules of government evolve more slowly than the rules of business,” Snow said. “I think particularly a lot of folks in government are subject to what is essentially a low-reward, high-risk environment where Rule No. 1 is 'don’t mess up.' And that is not altogether compatible with the culture of innovation, in which one of the primary theses is failure is the best teacher.”

But while the incongruity between the two isn’t going away, Snow said he feels like the Office of American Innovation — alongside 18F and USDS — can help integrate the separate perspectives of both sectors to find new solutions for government.

“You need someone with time and experience, you need a fresh set of eyes periodically, you need review, they need all of these things,” he said.

“I think the first thing they do is go on a listening tour. I think they go and talk to people who have been in an agency a long time and learn about what is in their way. I think also [they should] go and listen to the organizations in government that they perceive are helping and figure out what they need to survive and thrive. Like anybody else, when you start a new endeavor, you go look for your allies.”
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