Officials encourage agencies to look far and wide for innovation

Great ideas can come from unexpected sources, from an ordinary citizen responding to a crowd-sourcing initiative to a chance encounter with an employee in the elevator, tech leaders say.

There are hidden pockets of innovation nationwide and the federal government must tap into them, federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra told an audience of agency managers at a Washington conference Tuesday.

Chopra highlighted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's recent crowd-sourcing initiative to gather ideas for its next combat support vehicle. Victor Garcia, an ordinary citizen, beat out nearly 200,000 entries this summer with the Flypmode, which is designed to transport personnel in and out of combat more quickly.

Agencies are increasingly using crowd-sourcing tactics and President Obama's open government initiative to spur innovation, Chopra said during the FedTalks conference focusing on information technology and personnel issues.

The CTO referred to the open government initiative as rocket fuel for sparking good ideas. "But these things don't happen without human capital to push them," he added.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry told conference participants the Federal Labor-Management Council, which he heads, has taken advantage of the Homeland Security Department's Idea Factory -- an online crowdsourcing tool -- to harvest ideas for improving personnel management.

Ideas that achieve a certain vote point are automatically discussed and considered at the council's monthly meetings.

The philosophy of bottom-up innovation is what will keep high-tech government human, Berry said. "I believe that today's technology is at its most powerful when it brings people together -- that is the overarching power of the Internet and the cellphone and devices that we use every day," he said. "But if we're not careful, our excitement with the tech can overshadow the purpose of that connection."

OPM hosts monthly town hall meetings that allow agency employees to question Berry and his team, and the personnel agency director encourages workers to approach him anytime. Even the elevator is not off-limits. Staying glued to a smartphone rather than being available in person is detrimental to communication, Berry said.

"I believe that leaders and innovators have to be constantly approachable," he said. "The next big idea, or the idea that pulls your bacon out of the fire, is not necessarily your idea."

The human element is what made the revamp of the job search site -- which officially relaunched Tuesday -- a success, Berry said. The new site is aimed at making the application process smoother for recruiters and candidates.

"It was a case of having the right people engaged on the right task," he said. "It was a process that worked amazingly well and allowed us to go from concept to end in 18 months."