Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: How to make your government agency more innovative

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

The words innovation and government may not be synonymous, but “the times, they are a-changin.”

Last month, the White House launched a Presidential Innovation Fellows program that will bring in 15 innovators from outside government to provide expertise on five technology projects.

The announcement spurred two distinct reactions. The cynics, of course, rolled their eyes. The enthusiasts sent in their applications.
Within 24 hours of the announcement, more than 600 people applied to come to Washington for at least six months to work with federal employees on projects aimed at making government more effective and more accountable.

The projects, led by Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel, include developing a process that makes it easier for the federal government to procure innovative technology solutions from small, high-growth companies; creating an electronic payment system for government transactions involving foreign aid and U.S. operations overseas; and streamlining an online system for citizens in need of federal services.

This new effort is significant not only because it may result in positive change and improved government, but because it will be a showcase for public- and private-sector collaboration that could be expanded in the future and greatly benefit leaders and their agencies.

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program is based in part on the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program that allows agencies to recruit world-class, private-sector innovators for limited periods of time and pair them with public-sector innovators to solve big problems.

For example, with support from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Food and Drug Administration has worked with more than a dozen outside experts and public servants to revamp the process for assessing new breakthrough medical devices.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service also enlisted private-sector help on ways to improve the visa process to ensure that the U.S. can reap the advantages of immigrant entrepreneurs. The Department of Health and Human Services is now in the process of identifying large-scale projects that will draw on outside expertise.

What’s clear is that innovation in government is possible, and so is the ability to get help from the private sector, nonprofits and academia. For senior leaders considering such an option, there are a few basic principles to keep in mind.

Follow the letter and the spirit of the law. Check with your chief human capital officer (CHCO), legal counsel and other functional experts to ensure you know all the rules, can avoid the minefields and fully understand restrictions and conflicts of interest. There may be a tendency for some in government to automatically put up roadblocks and say it can’t be done, but the efforts now in progress show it can be done.

Be a creative problem-solver. Work closely with your CHCO to find the right mix of term appointments and other flexibilities to recruit and, at least temporarily, hire the right kind of talent to meet the project goals. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Make it matter, and make it relevant. Pick projects that will be high impact and that will be attractive enough to individuals from other sectors who will be willing to make a contribution. The FDA, for example, was able to recruit experts from universities, the medical profession and entrepreneurs like Dean Kamen (the inventor of the Segway) to work on the medical device issues.

Build your team for success. Make certain to invest in building a strong team. Onboard the private-sector entrepreneurs to federal government operations. Shine a spotlight on the external innovators’ experience for the federal employees. And be certain to provide shared language for communicating with one another or you’ll spend more time in translation than getting things done.

For more information about these programs and other innovation and collaboration strategies, check out the White House’s Open Innovator’s Toolkit. And if you have other ideas, please share them by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jun 15, 2012 at 4:02 PM

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