Less than two years old, the USAID Global Development Lab is bringing private-sector investment strategies to developing countries. Executive Director Ann Mei Chang — a Google alum — sat down with Federal Times Senior Writer Aaron Boyd to talk about the Lab's current programs, what's ahead for the future and what other federal agencies can learn from their work.
What is the Global Development Lab and where does it fit into USAID and the State Department as a whole?
The U.S. Global Development Lab is the newest bureau at USAID. We were launched in April 2014. We have a twofold mission. On one hand we're trying to find breakthrough innovations that can really transform development and bring those to scale. On the other hand, we're trying to fundamentally transform the way we do development itself through modern tools and approaches.
How does this fit in with the rest of USAID. How independent is the Lab, or do you take your cues from other parts of the organization?
The Global Development Lab is very much an integral part of USAID. On one hand we spend about a third of our time really casting a wide net to find the best tools, approaches and innovations from across the agency and around the world. Then what we do is take all of those things and look at how we can apply them to the problems the agency is trying to solve. We see ourselves as a catalyst and as a partner to the rest of the agency in bringing the best tools, approaches and innovations to the important work that the agency is doing.
When people say lab – especially development lab— you think of people working on new tools and things like that. That's not really what you guys do here. Can you talk about, one, what you mean by development and, two, what you mean by lab.
Yes, the Global Development Lab is not a lab in itself. We don't actually have beakers and test tubes here where we're mixing things up. USAID is a funding agency. We fund implementing partners who do the work for us. When we talk about development, what we mean is international development. We're trying to, as the mission of USAID states, end extreme poverty and promote more resilient and democratic societies. In one way you can think about it is that we are working towards meeting the new, global goals, the new sustainable development goals. That's very much the work of the agency. The work of the lab is really to bring the most modern tools and approaches to that endeavor. We are trying to bring in the things that can be transformative, that can have a step-order change in helping us to reach those goals whether it's better, faster, cheaper or more sustainable and hopefully all of the above.
Over the last year, two years, there's really been a push across the federal government to look at what the commercial sector is doing and try and bring in more of those best practices and even people. You yourself come from Google. You're a great example of that. At the Lab, you go out and find things that are working somewhere, adapt them to a specific challenge and push that out. How does this approach differ from developing new things in house?
I think of the Global Development Lab really as sort of an advanced development lab. We are not trying to invent things completely from whole cloth. What we're trying to do is to take things that have really been proven, for example, technologies that have been vastly transformational in the developed world and look at how we can apply them to the problems in developing countries. We're also trying to take innovations that are starting to show success in development arenas and then look at how we can support them to help them with their resources and the expertise they need to really reach scale.
Walk us through the process of how you identify these solutions and then how you help to implement them.
The Global Development Lab casts a wide net in trying to identify solutions. We have a number of different mechanisms, but what we do is we put out a call and we try to reach as many people as possible. So whether that's students at a university or an entrepreneur in a developing country or someone who's working in the private sector, we try to bring together nontraditional players. We really believe that it is by bringing the best minds around the world with diverse perspectives together that we get the best solutions.
We have a number of different ways to do that. We do open calls for innovation where we have people submit their ideas. We try to have co-creation workshops where we bring diverse minds together to collaborate in coming up with ideas and we have a number of mechanisms to do so.
For example, we have the Development Innovations Ventures — also known as DIV — which is a venture capital style, tiered-funding mechanism. It's very different from the traditional USAID grant or contract.
We also have the grand challenges that really focus attention on specific big problems that we want to engage people in trying to solve together.
What kinds of lessons have you learned that can be applied to the work being done at other federal agencies?
We talk a lot about the innovations that the lab has come up with. I believe that the approaches that we're using are as at least as important as the innovations. For example one of the programs is open innovation. Traditionally we put out RFA (Request for Applications) or RFP (Request for Proposals) and they get responded to by a small number of generally large institutions. Instead what we're trying to do is to bring the best minds around the world to bear and to open up innovation to a much wider swath of people. That's something that we want to see across the board in the work that USAID does, and also we think that it can benefit for the work of other agencies across the government as well.
Another approach we take is that we really focus on data and iteration to build feedback work into the work that we do. In the private sector where I come from at Google, we are constantly looking at the data — what search algorithms are performing the best and constantly tweaking our search engine to make our product better. In the development sector, our cycles for being able to get information are very, very slow.
It measures on the order of years, not days. It takes a long time in a traditional development program for us to get the information about what's working and not and to be able to adjust that program. So we're really trying to reduce that cycle time. That's something else that we think all government agencies can really benefit from is to get faster feedback about what's working and what's not working and to be able to adapt our programs.
Everyone wants to be faster, what is the Lab doing to achieve this?
We're developing in conjunction with our partners a number of different tools to be able to collect data and feedback more rapidly. We call this real-time data.
That can be something like a sensor that actually detects whether a well that we drilled is actually being used and whether it's working. It can be a mobile-survey tool where workers go out and ask people questions to ask them if they received certain aid or if something was helpful to them. It can be a text survey where we send out an SMS blast to a number of people in a country and get their responses about how they're feeling about something and whether something's working. Now all of these kinds of data points give us a very fast feel for what's working and not and allow us to then adjust based on what we learned.
What's the future for the Lab? Near term, what are you focused on in the next year? Looking out further, where is this all going?
The lab is still young. We're only a year and a half old. We've developed lots of great tools and innovations and approaches. In this next year, we feel like the proof is in the pudding. We really want to get some hard data to show how the things that we have brought to the table are helping our agency and our partners to be able to deliver the results for which they are looking better, faster, cheaper, more sustainably. We're really focused on gathering that data and seeing where we are able to have a dramatic impact on transforming the results that we're able to deliver as an agency.
I think long-term, our goal is really very much to transform development. We want to both see the tangible tools and innovations we've applied to date, see how they're able to impact programs, but we also want to see the whole face of development change to really bring in these modern approaches such as open innovation, such as data iterations, such as thinking about scale and maintainability because we think that these are drivers that will help all of us be more effective across the work that we're doing in international development.
Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.