DorobekINSIDER LIVE: From the Frontlines of Innovation

A special edition of GovLoop’s DorobekINSIDER today. We're LIVE! We are doing this at least once each month this year. The idea is simple: get smart people together and share ideas because we believe that the real power of information comes when it is shared.

Today, we are talking about innovation. What is government innovation? Does it matter? What makes innovation so hard?

I have a few theorems about government -- theorems that I think can be proven by data. One is that the business of government is generally more difficult than private sector work. Another is that government -- again, generally -- has an inferiority complex. That is understandable given the public perception out there right now, but in some ways, government insiders are even harder on themselves, if that’s possible.

There are bright spots, but for government to change dramatically, it will take a top down movement to either train, appoint, or hire managers who want innovation, who support their staff, who are willing to fight the bureaucracy, who are willing to go to their managers to go to Congress/Legislature/Parliament to get things changed.


DorobekINSIDER's Panel Of Innovation Experts:

Improvement Vs. Innovation

Shen: "There is a big difference between improvement and innovation. Improvement is doing things better or more efficiently. Innovation is much larger step in the nature of what you are creating. Part of the reason that people feel fatigue around innovation is because they think of innovation like a buzzword. People outside of government say, 'Why is innovation taking so long, or how do you think this project is innovative the public sector has been doing this for years.' But what they don't understand is how government works. Take my project for the Presidential Innovation Fellowship. The Smithsonian has 19 different museums. Each museum has done very innovative things. But that is all separate. When we started our project we were crowdsourcing solutions for all 19 museums. We had to work across different platforms, that takes time and courage."

Need Trust To Be Innovative

Key Insight: "Trust in government is at an all-time low. For example, a story came out today about raw milk. People are believing what industry experts are saying. Industry experts who have a vested interest in the outcomes of you purchasing one milk or another. Consumers are disregarding what the government experts, experts who have no skin in the game are saying, because trust in government is so low. We have a real need to build trust. Citizens expect to communicate with government the same way they do with private companies. Right now, government can't do this. If we want to gain the trust of the public back we need to innovate so we can reach people," said Trudeau. "If we don't innovate, people will seek other sources for information. They will go around government. There is always a lot of talk about how government doesn't have any competitors, but the competitor is the public circumventing the government entirely."

Leaders Matter Most

Nath: "If leaders aren't supportive innovation is 10x more challenging. Leaders set the tone, create the culture and send signals that innovations is good."

Shen: "When you bring in an "innovator" you are going to ruffle some feathers. When we started at the Smithsonian, we would walk into meetings and people would say, 'Are you even out of college yet?' One of the ways we were able to get over that mindset was to go to the meetings, listen to the employees concerns and then tell them our ideas. We had to include people in the conversation."

Trudeau: "Leaders have to give you the cover to innovate. I remember I went to an MIT Lab once, as we were going through our tour we heard a large crash, someone had dropped a piece of equipment and it shattered. It was obviously very expensive. The room went silent. But then, the boss said, 'I love that sounds because it means that people are doing things, they are trying things.' After that comment, the room sprang back to life, because the boss had given the person cover to keep trying.

Burton: "If a manager says they care about innovation, but then at review time ask how many widgets you have created, they clearly don't understand innovation. People will do the things that advance their career. So if you really want innovation you have to support it. You have to hire people who want to have new ideas."

Re-think the Price of Failure

Key Insight: "We need to re-think how we judge risk. There is a lot of 'Got You' mentality going around. But, we need to ask the question, 'What is the risk if we DON'T innovate?' People get upset when we fail, which is understandable to a certain point, but if we try small programs, if we iterate and iterate often, the price of failure is much less than if we invest millions of dollars and two years in a project and then it fails," said Trudeau. "People are loyal to their agency and to their agency's way of doing things. So it is sometimes hard to break down those walls and do things collaboratively and differently, but that is one of the areas where we can really reduce the risk by adding more agencies into the equation."

What's Your Innovator Background?

Trudeau: "Essentially what I do at the General Services Administration is work with other agencies to grow innovation. We are there to help streamline the innovation process, to find areas where agencies can share the need, incubate a solution and team up successful entrepreneurs with government."

Shen: "I was a Presidential Innovation Fellow working with the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian is currently digitizing all of its records, but what do you do with them after the fact? OUr goals was to transcribe the documents, but we couldn't do it on our own. So we created a Wikipedia like service. In a short time we had over 2,000 volunteers and more than 5,000 pages transcribed. A feat that has already saved more than $6 million dollars."

Nath: "In San Francisco we work to build key partnerships between government and the private sector. We have modeled our Mayor's Innovation Fellowship Program off of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship and Code for America. We have an entrepreneur in residence. We are finding new ways to bring the more than $140 billion tech dollars that are around San Francisco and leverage then in the government."

Burton: "On my first day as the CIO at the CFPB, I walked in, still had my luggage with me and someone pulled me into a meeting on getting a RFP out about hosting services. Three weeks later we had a hosting service set up. Innovation in government can move fast."

Is there even time to innovate?

Key Insight: "You are always trying to do your job as defined. People are too busy chopping wood to buy a chainsaw," said Burton. "You have to set aside time to think differently."

How do you get innovation started at you agency?

Burton: "Just do it. I hear a lot of times people hold back because they are nervous. The best piece of advice is to just go out and do it, start small, but act."

Nath: "Sometimes innovating can be scary, so we developed a toolkit based on knowledge from innovators at every level. That way when you are creating an innovative project you can learn from the lessons of previous innovators."

Key Insight: "The limiting factor to innovation is not ideas. Plenty of people have ideas. The limiting factor is trust. You have to become more influential in your organization before people will let you innovate. What does that mean? If you can do your current job really well, if you can build up trust in you as an employee that people will trust you when you have an innovative idea. To go out on a limb, you are basically asking people to trust you, you have to earn that trust," said Shen.

Trudeau: "Deliver, deliver again and don't take no for an answer."

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