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FCW : January 2016
By isolating the innovation func- tion, agencies can lose the greatest innovative asset they have: the many thousands of employees who have direct contact with citizens and the programs being delivered, and who are the engine to idea generation and mobilization. As a result, while we see the value in innovation offices in an agency, it is not a mandatory condition for effective innovation. In short, one of the challenges of creating innovation in the federal government is ensuring that the key players are involved — early and often — in the innovation process, as innova- tion is a leadership responsibility. As such, this remains a challenge through the entire innovation process and in every stage of the innovation model. 2. Lack of process discipline Not surprisingly, process discipline is often lacking, which ties in neatly with our first challenge. While everyone we spoke with is very supportive of the need for innovation, few agencies have a defined and repeatable process for enacting innovation. Rather, often the person who generates the idea is unaware of a process to enact the innovation, and either tries to create a process or simply gives up trying to implement it. Sylvia Burns, CIO at the Department of the Interior, notes that IT-enabled innovation bubbles up, but support needs to be implemented from the top down. This model allows corporate IT to pick the toolsets and standards, but it allows IT-based innovation to flourish in bureaus and field offices. As a result of the lack of process, potentially workable ideas are routine- ly developed and discarded before they can be officially screened through a rig- orous process. Numerous interviewees told us stories of great innovations that were created but never implemented due to a lack of awareness of the pro- cess or the fear of failure. Former CIO Barry West says, “Gov- ernments are not always good about failure; people get punished for it.” West pushes for more agile methods that allow innovators to “fail fast” and learn from experience by putting in place a mechanism for “bold leader- ship” to create good business cases and move innovative projects forward as quickly as possible within the con- straints of government. Interestingly, most of the agency leaders we spoke to are aware of this issue and told us stories of an innova- tion that languishes in obscurity until the leadership finds out about it and brings it to fruition. The function of championing the idea is often per- formed well once identified, but it is probable that the innovation may be discarded without the direct and force- ful involvement of the CIO. In one example, Nuclear Regulatory Commission CIO Darren Ash notes that the requirement for a mobility-enabled intranet to allow employees to access essential documents while conducting on-site activities was well known in the field, but it had not made it to the agency level. Ash was approached directly by a staff member to consider the innovation; a subsequent meeting was arranged and the project’s direc- tion changed as a result. But Ash, noting that this type of extraordinary intervention should not be necessary, works to create a more open and collaborative environ- ment in which a new culture of change allows for innovation to rise through the organization to the advocating and screening stage. In this case, as with numerous other stories we heard, innovative ideas are only implemented if the CIO becomes aware of the innovation and personally spearheads its implementation. 3. Inability to determine value of innovation Virtually all of the agencies we met with had the same problem: how to determine the value of a potential inno- vation. While all agencies acknowledge the challenges of government account- ing, most lack a clear and concise way to determine if an innovation is worth implementing. Interestingly, there is little difficulty in determining the cost of an innova- tion, and most of our interviewees spoke with great confidence about the direct and indirect costs necessary to bring an innovation to fruition. Addi- tionally, most are comfortable with identifying the non-quantifiable ben- efits and risks associated with the innovation. National Science Foundation CIO Amy Northcutt describes her process for calculating the business case for innovation project screening, saying, “The ROI equation does not transfer well to the government setting as the variables do not translate.” She researched the major consulting firms and then asked other CIOs on the CIO Council what they did for evalu- ation and weighting. Their responses were all similar: It is very hard, and we don’t have it worked out yet. What was required was an agency-specific meth- od, as value is often context-specific. In both the experimentation and planning stages, the challenge is to accurately identify the quantifiable benefits (and risks) associated with the innovation, and because of this, innovators have a great deal of diffi- culty convincing senior management about the wisdom of the innovation. It is not that senior management is against innovation. On the contrary, senior management encourages inno- vation but needs a supportable case to make the right business decision. Lacking the ability to calculate the January 2016 FCW.COM 31 0116fcw_030-032.indd 31 1/4/16 3:51 PM
November and December 2015