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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Unlocking Innovation In Government

The government is not built for innovation. It is built for taking orders. To create a culture of innovation we will have to fundamentally reconstruct government such that it is an incubator for new ideas and not an automatic blocker of them.

But first we will need to make the case that government should be innovative. It has to become an urgent need. Either we get better at what we're doing (e.g., innovate for improvement) or we die.

Unfortunately the government does not tend to act when things are calm. Rather, it takes one of two scenarios: a crisis to respond to (not what we want!) or there is an absolute, top-down requirement. And in the latter case, the absolute top-down requirement may generate superficial conformity absent a real commitment to change, unless people are motivated. (When someone's job is on the line, or they stand to be embarrassed, they tend to get motivated.)

Worse yet, the impenetrable tangle of laws, policies, rules and regulations makes it practically impossible for anyone to innovate in an orderly, disciplined manner. To give a very simple example, it is classic government practice to design websites badly due to the challenge of simply getting input from the users; and due to the lack of creativity around what it means to design a website in the first place. 

For my part, I would create one website for most of the government to which all agencies contribute, because customers think of the government as a unit. They should not need to know which agency does what. They should be able to type something into a Google-type search bar and find only government results. DREAM SCENARIO.

Why can't I send that idea forward? The short answer is that I can; I remember sometime this past year there was a call for new ideas and participated. Each one got a rejection of some type. Because there, again, the government is too limited in its thinking: I don't need to know what you did with my idea. It's not about assigning someone to get back to me. It's about putting the ideas out there, in a public space, where others can see them, rate them, and build off of them. For some byzantine reason that I cannot understand, we currently do not have this.

Here's another example of a concept that would better serve the customer, in my view: A single customer service portal that works across the Federal government. If you have any question about anything, it should be as simple as: Tweeting, calling, emailing, sending a text, or sending an IM. To one number: USGOV (87468). There should be 1,000 people on the other end of that communication who can start a ticket, refer it to the appropriate party, and get a response back to the customer along with a link to the appropriate URL. Every individual gets a customer number; every inquiry gets a case number. SO SIMPLE.

Most of the ideas considered innovative for government are already well entrenched in the private sector. Amazon.com pioneered the idea of user reviews nearly 20 years ago. This is a crucial part of customer service because it reduces the burden on the taxpayer of funding FTEs to answer questions that the public can handle.

Imagine this scenario (not currently in use by Amazon): When I send in my question, it automatically goes into the user database where someone else may respond and I can track those responses using my US citizen customer number. (If we want to get very innovative about it, we can use people's fingerprints as their identifiers; attach a little scanner to your laptop or mobile device and log in to the government portal).

I don't know, none of these things seem like rocket science to me, but there is a perception in the government somehow that if you're not in the Senior Executive Service or you're not in charge of that particular function in that particular agency then you have no business even suggesting such things. I know this because very early in my career I suggested that an agency set up a new media "war room" where they could track social media mentions, interactions, questions, comments etc.; and then merge the communication functions seamlessly so that incoming data could receive an integrated response. My supervisor at the time was absolutely furious that I had dared to submit an organization chart for something that was not only above my pay grade, but the supervisor's pay grade as well.

In terms of diversity, the people who generate creative ideas nonstop, who are generally a bit quirky (I count myself in this group) tend to be put into a corner where they will not create too much trouble. Because the norm for government is a team player who goes along to get along, who follows rules well, who is pleasant, who learns the system and functions well within it.

I have been extremely fortunate to have "grown up" professionally in the federal government and to have worked with a variety of anomalous mentors who saw and appreciated my unique qualities and nurtured them. Their support compensated for everything else, and everyone else, that did not understand where I was coming from and/or didn't like it.

Also, I would add that working for the government has exposed me to some brilliant people. There is a serious lack of understanding among the public about how smart government employees are as well as how dedicated they are -- this is true, I have found, of most.

Further, working for the government means that you have some inspiration (public service) as well as some thoughtful time -- your hours are structured and regular. In the private sector, it truly is all about money, money, money and ruthlessly cutting so as to improve the bottom line.

I have great faith that we will move forward and upward and onward and get where we need to be.

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Posted November 2, 2017 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. This post is public domain. Photo by Weinstock via Pixabay (CC0 Creative Commons):