Can government learn from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs?

Sumeet Shrivastava is President of Array Information Technology, one of the nation's leading DOD and National Security IT services firms.

There's a sharp contrast between the stereotype of a government employee hopelessly tangled in red tape and the glamorous ideal of a brash young start-up CEO cruising around in a Tesla. Reality isn't quite that simple, but what lesson can we learn from this perceived dichotomy between bureaucrat and entrepreneur?

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs prosper by using cutting-edge technologies to deliver transformative products and services. They push the envelope, striving to invent and innovate for the benefit of businesses and consumers everywhere. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. But even these failures are worn as a badge of honor. Unfortunately, in government, failure is not as well understood or tolerated.

So, how do we cultivate innovation in government? First, let me suggest that while it would be ideal to remove several major structural impediments, we must assume they will remain. It isn't optimal, for example, to have Congress in the role of operations oversight instead of a true "Board of Directors." A risk-based model is best for fostering innovation, but the reality is that regulatory and compliance activity will continue to add layers of stultifying busywork. Strategic planning is tricky in a budget environment that plans on an annual (or shorter) basis, with no regard to multi-year ROI's. We should keep working on these issues, but for now I will focus on what we can do within the confines of our current system.

Leverage Existing Guidance That Supports Innovation – Since I entered the federal industry over 20 years ago, we have seen numerous iterations of regulatory guidance, each adding a layer of best practices for IT-based acquisitions and management. The various Digital Government initiatives are a recent example. It is unrealistic to expect that the executive suite can simply publish a guidebook that will help people five levels deep in an organization do a better job executing decisions worth tens of millions of dollars without the training and systems to ensure adoption. Action Item #1: Industry and government leaders must be passionate and knowledgeable about FAR or OMB guidance that supports innovative acquisitions. Find the specific examples of documents that can be leveraged—and use them! (See U.S. Digital Services Playbook and GSA 18F)

Make Way for Healthy Competition – Innovation is fostered when there is a combination of competition (between solution providers) and collaboration (between buyer and seller). It's hard to understand how a vendor can truly contribute an innovative approach to a problem, when "in the interest of protecting the taxpayer dollar," their communications are published, effectively leveling the whole playing field. Inevitably, this turns an opportunity to develop complex system solutions into an acquisition where price becomes the only viable discriminator. Significant business or mission value is lost in the process. Action Item #2: Remind your Federal customers that even the OMB guidance suggests that asynchronous communications are allowed and encouraged (See Mythbusting Memos).

Embrace Failure – Government agencies would certainly benefit from a higher tolerance for risk and failure. However, it's naïve to think the same principles that apply to start-ups should apply to the federal space. Often, the scale of federal technology solutions is such that they impact the lives of a majority of the U.S. population. It is important to recognize that in developing a culture of innovation, we need a way to recognize failure more quickly and move on when something doesn't work. We can't continue getting three or four years into some big idea, only to realize that we picked the wrong path. Action Item #3: For higher risk projects, ensure that the conditions for success are set. In particular, emphasize that leaders on both sides need to agree (in writing!) to the importance of their role and to fostering conditions conducive to experimentation.

It is essential to keep these action items in the mix as we work to support initiatives geared towards merging the "Silicon Valley" mindset with the Federal Government environment. Many of these tenets will require investing in training for decision makers at all levels and promoting strong curricula like the Building Government Acumen program at George Mason University School of Business.

We recently saw the first-ever launch of a $23-million Govtech Fund, dedicated to investing in start-ups building hardware and software tools for governments. This comes as federal, state and local governments cry out for upgrades to decades-old technology. As we push forward, we must focus on making the best use of these emerging resources, capturing knowledge from success and failure, and gradually building a culture more at ease with innovation and change.

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