Much has been made of the federal government’s attempts to attract top-flight tech talent from Silicon Valley. Over the past few years, the Obama administration has launched two teams of digital fixers -- the 18F team at the General Services Administration and the White House’s U.S. Digital Service team -- staffed with Facebook, Google and Apple alumni.
But the next phase of the strategy to inculcate innovative digital practices in the halls of government might be to focus on the smartest people already in the room.
“Right now, there's a lot of excitement about . . . superheroes from Silicon Valley,” said Susannah Fox, chief technology officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, during a discussion at the Digital Innovation Summit hosted by FedScoop in Washington. But it’s also important to think about how to “build up the entrepreneurial skills from within the agency,” Fox added. “There are lots of people who have devoted their lives to public service who also have great ideas."
Fox says both elements are important. As CTO, she also oversees the agency’s IDEA Lab, which brings in talented outsiders -- entrepreneurs- and innovators-in-residence -- to solve tough problems an agency doesn't have the capacity to do on its own.
Maria Roat, CTO of the Transportation Department, said she has plans to expand an “idea hub” at her agency -- now essentially a digital comment box -- into a more robust effort for sharing big ideas and creative solutions.
“We get more than enough ideas and plenty of people coming to the table, saying 'Hey, cool, look at this,'” she said. “But a lot of that's coming internally.”
The expanded idea-sharing hub could even include a “sandbox” capability for employees -- not necessarily in tech fields -- who want to roll their sleeves up and experiment on problem-solving, Roat said.
"How do I tap into that capability if people really want to contribute but their primary job function is in HR?” she said. “How about building out that sandbox? How about bringing in those ideas?"
Gwynne Kostin, director of GSA’s Digital Government Division, has played a key role in the adoption of a far-reaching 2012 strategy to improve the government’s digital footprint. The strategy kick-started efforts to release agency data through application programming interfaces and revamp government websites to work better on tablets and smartphones.
Still, much of the work undertaken by agencies in the digital realm have been relatively small bore, focused more on increasing efficiencies rather than something truly transformative.
Kostin, who’s preparing to depart GSA for a 1-year fellowship with the Partnership for Public Service, wants agencies to think bigger.
"We're really focused on improving our processes, being more efficient and serving our customers,” she explained. That’s not unimportant work. “But what it's doing is, is interrupting us from really doing a lot of innovation."
Some digital boosters may be a little too rah-rah over those relatively minor projects.
"Too often, what we're seeing is, we're praising ourselves for everything,” she said. “We're not looking critically at what we're doing.”
She added: “Every incremental change, every launch of every dumb website is [treated] like the second coming of Jesus...I'm not saying we have to hate ourselves; I'm not saying we need sackcloth and ashes. What I'm saying is, if we're so busy saying, ‘We're wonderful,’ we're losing the opportunity to critically look at what we are doing and make it better.”