With the Office of American Innovation, the White House has illuminated that public-sector innovation and growth is essential for the United States’ status as a global and economic leader. Still, the process toward actual innovation is more complex than this initiative makes it seem.
The necessity of a redesign
Innovation in governments requires leaders to look at the current structure and ask themselves three questions: What do we do today, what must we do tomorrow, and how do we deliver that? And while the Office of American Innovation could be a benefit to government innovation, especially in regard to generating departmental revenue and fostering growth, the way this office is currently established seems more like an effort to cut costs than to actually innovate.
Moreover, hiring the right employees to implement the redesign is essential, but the new initiative doesn’t have any staff member with experience in fundamentally redesigning operating models. Given that hole and the current approach, the true intent of the organization isn’t clear. Does it really value innovation, or does it want to find cheap ways to cut corners and eliminate departments?
Whether this initiative succeeds, the fact remains that the government has a huge opportunity to innovate upon its existing processes. With so many different products and services to offer, government innovation is similar to innovation in any large multinational corporation. The key is that innovation can’t occur without dedicated teams focused on the three aforementioned questions.
Most importantly, the parallel operating model ensures that these teams work by aiming to solve a problem organically, as opposed to justifying a predetermined solution.
For example, during our work with the U.K. National Nuclear Laboratory, the government gave that organization the freedom to reinvest its unspent budget and profits as it saw fit. Capitalizing on this flexibility, National Nuclear undertook an organization redesign and separated its business into parallel operating models: One side handles typical government tasks, while the other focuses on new global partnerships and revenue-generating projects such as establishing a relationship with Japan after the Fukushima disaster to help them respond to that problem.
How government can empower innovation
To innovate doesn’t mean to evolve without purpose. Government agencies move slowly, but that can be a blessing inasmuch as it’s a hindrance. Finding unique operational advantages and making the most of them is the key to meaningful innovation.
To begin with, the top-down structure of government must get out of its own way if it wants to lead real change. Congress and the White House can’t (and shouldn’t) guide an initiative themselves, because to do so would inevitably pressure innovation teams to arrive at predetermined conclusions.
Instead, these branches must empower a group of agency leaders and sponsor their innovation efforts within various government branches. Much like the private sector, these teams would be accountable to higher authorities like Congress, but those authorities would perform regular reviews as opposed to dictating direction.
As far as the people chosen to lead such initiatives, they need to be bold thinkers. Putting people with big ideas together and freeing them from their daily responsibilities renders the quickest path toward meaningful change. Furthermore, and to ensure that the team doesn’t suffer from inaction, Congress and the White House can maintain accountability by establishing implementation goals once new ideas are approved. This process allows innovative practices and processes to come to fruition as efficiently as possible.
Take the Federal Emergency Management Agency as an example: With the knowledge gained from Hurricane Katrina, FEMA implemented innovations — such as better distribution centers and using technology like drones to assess damage without getting into harm’s way — into practice for later disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. This capacity to grow proves that government leaders can accurately measure time to resolution, judge the effectiveness of a new idea, and implement it.
Merging a big idea with day-to-day action to improve a product or process is the ultimate goal of any innovation. Governments can do this as well as the private sector, and while the Office of American Innovation may be — at least superficially — a step in the right direction, governments in order to spur innovation must create a fresh structure that allows new ideas to flourish.
Mark LaScola is founder and managing principal of ON THE MARK. Operating through his passion for collaborative business transformation that’s supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people, OTM has been in business for 27 years and is a global leader in collaborative organization design.