Commander in Chief of Innovation
Perhaps no one is more committed to American innovation than the US government is right now. This year’s South by Southwest Conference kicked off with a keynote discussion with President Obama, in which he expanded on the central message of his last state of the union address - that technology and innovation are necessary for securing America’s future and that positive change demands our participation:
“How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?...The future we want -- all of us want ... is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together.” - President Obama, SOTU 2016
While most presidents leave a legacy they claim as theirs alone, Obama’s legacy of innovation and change in government is a call to action to the American people and depends upon citizens stepping forward and helping out. As the President laid out in his keynote at SXSW: “The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today”.
Institutions mired in bureaucracy and legal restriction are typically the slowest to see innovative change. Collaboration is difficult across many disparate agencies, and one has to pass through so many stage gates to get anything evaluated and approved. It’s refreshingly surprising then that the Obama administration has not only jumped on the innovation bandwagon but has been an agent for change, looking to remake the inner workings of the government as well as our experience and perception of it. The end goal is a government that is both efficient and accessible, and that is no small feat.
Obama brought innovation to politics while campaigning for the presidency, with his reliance on technology and social media, but that was only the beginning of the change that was to come. The President ran on a platform of change and change he did, as he’s been the driving force behind many initiatives dedicated to retooling government functions. To name a few:
Established in 2012, this program pairs innovators from the private sector with leaders in the federal government, towards the goal of innovating for specific government agencies and initiatives. New Innovation Fellows are recruited each year and, last summer, President Obama made the program a permanent part of our government.
The Social Innovation Fund
The Social Innovation fund awards grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage “novel answers to social problems” in areas such as healthcare, job creation and education. It promotes partnerships between the public and private sectors, and social entrepreneurs. Prior to the SIF, such cash awards were only granted by the government to NASA, the space agency, and DARPA (R&D for the defense department).
The US Digital Service & 18F
The USDS can be thought of as a startup within the government that aims to tackle big challenges in access to government services, such as support for veterans, healthcare and immigration. They describe themselves as “Teams of problem solvers making government services simple, effective, and efficient.” Their partner agency, 18F, focuses on improving access to government data. 18F provides products and services that make access easier, and they also act as consultants to government agencies, helping them identify digital and/or agile solutions to challenges they are facing. 18F aims to deliver tools and services that, akin to the USDS, are “easy to operate, cost efficient, and reusable”.
Founded in 2013, this arm of the US Department of Health and Human Services vets new ideas for products and services using startup methodologies. IDEA is an acronym for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship and Action - special emphasis is placed on ideas that are not only actionable but impactful. The IDEA lab sources ideas both internally through the Ignite Accelerator program, and externally through residency programs with innovators and entrepreneurs.
Coursing through the veins of each of these initiatives are innovation’s core concepts and success drivers — collaboration and experimentation. Collaboration across agencies allows teams to share and reuse resources and approaches that have been proven successful. This is especially useful in government, where a demonstrated use case in one agency could determine the likelihood of approval for another. Collaboration between the private and public sectors widens the pool of talent, fosters a more diverse set of perspectives, and often provides the opportunity for funding from private industry. Experimentation opens the door to new ideas and technologies, and, when approached with a lean startup mentality, mitigates risk by lessening the impact of failed attempts at change.
Given the Obama administration’s focus on these key approaches to innovation, and the ample evidence that constraints drive creativity and encourage innovation, the government seems poised for a successful makeover. The biggest question on my mind is will it all come to a halt when the next president takes office. I’m comforted, however, by the words of the current President at the end of the State of the Union: “I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people”.