We thank our advisory board, who will select the Vanguard Award winners. Here they offer some thoughts on why innovation is so difficult in the federal government.
Dan Blair, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, former deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management
Government faces structural restraints when it comes to innovation. The current political climates provides little incentive for federal managers to innovate, and this climate highly discourages risk through punishing those who try to innovate but are not immediately successful. To overcome these barriers, government may want to examine more market based approaches where innovation can lead to transformation. An example can be found in the Government Publishing Office, which is successfully transforming from a hard-copy based printing office to an electronic knowledge management entity.
Robert Carey, vice president of Navy and Marine Corps Programs at Vencore, former principal deputy CIO at the Department of Defense
There is a culture of risk avoidance in the government. The government tries to drive risk to zero, rather than manage it. Innovation is synonymous with taking risk. Budgets are shrinking, which forces the government to spend money more conservatively. The government is a huge engine of bureaucracy. Decision-making takes too long. And there are NO rewards to taking measured risks, only penalties. In industry, failing is part of the journey to success. In government, the budget process has no room for failure.
Karen Evans, national director of the US Cyber Challenge, former administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and IT, Office of Management and Budget
A lot of times what we’re really talking about is mid-level managers and their ability to manage the risk. The mid-lev managers will tell you there’s a reason why you do [things a certain way]: Nine times out of 10, somebody made a mistake and there was an oversight hearing, or someone got in trouble. That’s why a process went into place. A lot of times, what you really are trying to do is to foster an environment that allows new employees, or junior employees, to take risks, because they look at things from the bottom up. They can see ways that you could improve a process. What they need is coverage from above.
Beth McGrath, director of federal sector at Deloitte Consulting, former deputy chief management officer at the Department of Defense
Barriers to innovation are present in both the public and private sector. However, in government, they are characterized by too many layers of oversight, distributed accountability, and an incentive structure that values safe outcomes over transformational change. Those attributes, wrapped in a risk-averse culture not only perpetuate the status quo, but also stifle innovation at times when it’s most needed.
Fostering innovation requires a mission-focused, enterprise perspective and the application of commercial practices with a business-mindset. Innovators deliver capability to market faster, iterate improvement, show a willingness to try new things, and, above all, demand results. Overcoming cultural resistance to change and risk are crucial and will likely be the most challenging facet of any project – ownership, leadership, and an intolerance for the status quo are critical to successful innovation.
Paul Posner, director of the Graduate Public Administration Program at George Mason University, former Government Accountability Office director of intergovernmental programs
Franklin Reeder, founder of the Center for Internet Security, former director of the White House Office of Administration
The greatest barrier to innovation, in my opinion, is fear of failure and the often over-estimated political fallout. As Grace Hopper is reported to have said: "it is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission." Those who fail and fess up promptly are seldom punished. The real disasters occur when innovators refuse to admit failure and persist.
Stan Soloway, President & CEO at Celero Strategies LLC, former Professional Services Council CEO, former deputy undersecretary of defense
The greatest barriers to pushing the envelope in government are essentially the same as they are elsewhere: leadership and culture. But in government, one has to deal with multiple "leadership" communities (career and political, media, and, perhaps most importantly, congressional and oversight), each of which also has its own culture. Thus, those who have succeeded in driving innovation to scale and beyond a niche area, are those who have had strong, sustained leadership support at the very top of their chain of command, and have been able to effectively engage and communicate with other stakeholder groups that, under other circumstances, could be barriers to success. It's all about real change management...something we do far too little of in government.
Linda Springer, former Office of Personnel Management director
It’s easy to wear down federal government innovators. Statutes and regulations — the need to create them or the roadblocks they cause — can force innovation traffic off the path to realization. Two options offer hope for a route that has fewer obstacles: demonstration projects and administrative authorities.
Both of these approaches have helped innovative solutions prove their worth and gain advocates for broader implementation. It may seem indirect, but the end result is worth the effort.
Max Stier, president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, former deputy general counsel for litigation at the Department of Housing and Urban Development
Our government is designed to perform reliably, not to adapt to changing circumstances or to explore new ideas. It tends to reward the status quo and is risk-averse because of the fear of political repercussions. Successful agencies have leaders with a vision, individuals who are willing to try new approaches and create an environment where employees are encouraged and rewarded to take risks, and to drive change to better serve the American people.
Robert Tobias, director of business development for American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs, former president of the National Treasury Employees Union
Successful federal innovators recognize that “innovation” is not the work of an isolate; rather, it occurs when a person recognizes that innovation is a group endeavor, has the personal leadership competencies necessary to create trust among dispirit stakeholders, the willingness to use a collaborative problem solving process to create something new that no stakeholder had considered before, and the competencies necessary to implement what has been created.
Steve Watkins, founder and president of Watkins Communications, former editor of Federal Times
Within the federal sector, there are many barriers that often trip up innovation when it dares to show itself: A culture that favors risk aversion and a check-box style of bureaucracy; excessive middle management layers of approval; the fear of job loss associated with work that may no longer be necessary; politics; the challenges of making a new operating model fit into existing budget/appropriation/planning cycles; and plain old fear of change, to name a few. Overcoming these hurdles requires an almost heroic level of dedicated, engaged and sustained leadership from the top to grind through those barriers. There are other ingredients needed too, but without strong, lean-in leadership, nothing else matters.