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Creating a new architecture of government through tech and innovation

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“Innovation” has become a buzzword in government, industry, and society. Yet, scaling innovation for public policy is rarely discussed.

The 2016 presidential transitions teams have the opportunity to build upon the innovation agenda of previous administrations to advance a culture of innovation that is supported and enabled by cutting-edge tech throughout government.

Why innovate in government?

Structuring new tech-enabled approaches to governance can help streamline entrenched bureaucratic processes, build greater efficiency into how government operates, reinvigorate the federal workforce by attracting a new cohort of employees, and through improved communication and engagement with the public.

A more transparent government can rebuild the American people’s trust.

Our research shows that innovation is not the provenance of a single political party, nor is it just about people with hard data skills, or those who exclusively champion open data, or about a government that is more transparent, bigger or smaller.

Rather it is about finding new ways to do things in a systematic way by thinking creatively and engaging the best talent and resources from across sectors and from across party lines. There is an important distinction between innovation as a concept for transforming digital service delivery, and innovation applied more broadly as a method to identify, iterate and scale new approaches.

A more transparent government can rebuild the American people’s trust.

Embedding innovation within the federal government requires an integrated, long-term approach to create solutions at scale.

Upon completing more than fifty interviews with executives across sectors and party lines (government, nonprofit, academia, industry, and civil society) a consistent message emerged.

In order to build a better public sector for the twenty-first century, government must embrace innovation, and build the necessary architecture and structure to promote and institutionalize its use as a key means to achieve better outcomes. Building a twenty-first-century government requires a governance structure that enables an internal ecosystem of innovation that invests in technology, better use of data, and partnerships that can measure and deliver results.

From enabling unprecedented transparency, to active progress in open government and open machine readable data, innovation funds that scale what works, new types of public-private partnerships, and precision medicine, the Obama administration has made great strides to expand and prioritize innovation-driven policy.

These new programs and offices have been nodes in triggering conversations about the culture of innovation throughout the White House and at agencies.

Capitol Building. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marìa Helena Carey

Capitol Building. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marìa Helena Carey

These initiatives have produced some insightful developments: innovation funds within agencies; the creation of the White House Data and Digital Cabinets; United States Digital Services, 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows; evidence-based policy conversations; the use of prizes and challenges; small, critical changes in technology procurement processes; and the attraction and recruitment of new talent to government.

Now, the opportunity is to move beyond these individual successes and create structures that prioritize new methods and approaches within the White House, enable communication and collaboration across agencies, and, most importantly, enable the federal government to better serve the American people.

Our research identifies four key areas to help organize innovation in the next administration: (1) White House and Agencies; (2) Policy Innovation Offices and Public-Private Partnerships; (3) Cities as Incubators of Innovation; (4) Recruitment, Hiring, and Training.

Inside the White House, the next administration can help ensure that technology, innovation and data are a core part of decision-making.  This includes ensuring data policy questions are integral to a range of policies and that experts with dual skillsets in technology and policy are empowered in senior leadership positions.

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For example, cybersecurity is a critical, crosscutting area, though a thorough consideration of the structures needed to manage cybersecurity at the White House is beyond the scope of this report. It would be critical to bring in leadership that is not only able to craft effective policy, but also possesses practical, real-world experience in managing and solving cybersecurity crises.

An office or strategy for innovation in government (or government transformation) should be focused on culture change—providing the room to “fail forward,” to take risks and make (small) mistakes, to experiment, launch, and reiterate—and once something works, to ascertain how it can be scaled.

Each individual agency should be able to self-determine their needs. For some agencies this may include their own Digital Service unit or others it may take the form of “innovation sprints” with a specific agency, groups within an agency, or as a collaboration of agencies working on a problem together within a limited time frame.

A current obstacle to policy innovation is the procurement system, which does not necessarily incentivize new actors or speedy results.  More flexible procurement policies can support the need for stability and innovation in government.

They provide a level of accountability and risk management while supporting an environment of experimentation and innovation across government and among government vendors. Similar shifts toward more flexible procurement methods and policies are happening at all levels of government.

The federal government does not need to do it alone. In fact, there is much to be learned from cities across the country that are incubating and scaling programs and redesigning public systems to be more effective.

New York City Digital

In many cases, city government has become the locus of innovation, leveraging data, technology, social impact bonds, and other tools. Increasingly, US cities are leveraging technology to engage with citizens, demonstrating the potential of government innovation units and civic innovations such as participatory budgeting to improve government.

Public and private actors can work together to create open civic spaces, such as Superpublic in San Francisco, Startup Seattle, or Civic Hall in New York City. These types of spaces can bring civic innovators, entrepreneurs, technologists, and philanthropy together to collaboratively find solutions for the public good.

These interdisciplinary civic spaces and co-working hubs are cropping up across the country from Seattle to Austin to Washington, DC, attracting new talent and people interested in solving local problems.

Finally, in order to truly leverage technology and innovation into government, the hiring and recruitment process must reflect 21st century work force realities. The public sector can strategically recruit more inclusive tech talent to reflect America’s population.

For instance, hiring and training programs situated in local communities, such as the White House’s TechHire initiative, can combine federal funding and private sponsorship with community partners and local employees to build stronger, more inclusive networks.

Expanding the availability of flexible hiring structures can improve hiring efficiency and put people to work sooner. For example, by utilizing Schedule A hires, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, expert or consultant appointments, term appointments, and the like, much-needed human capital can be engaged in government work more quickly and, in some cases, without the restrictive requirements of career positions.

The next Presidential Administration has the distinct opportunity to institutionalize data and technology both within and beyond the White House. Taking the time to change the narrative of public service can foster trust for new approaches and can illustrate the many exciting opportunities within government.

For more on structuring innovation and tech in the next administration see our new report“The Architecture of Innovation: Institutionalizing Innovation in Federal Policymaking,” which will be released on October 6 at a public event on Georgetown University’s main campus. For more information, see dataforsocialgood.georgetown.edu. Join the conversation online using the hashtag #Data4SocialGood and follow us at @BeeckCenter and @McCourtSchool