What ever happened to innovation in government?

Steve Kelman wonders whether the federal IT community has lost its focus on truly transforming the way government functions.

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Believe it or not (I hardly believe it myself), I have been writing this blog with FCW for over 20 years now. That means a lot of blog topics. Sometimes these topics come from items in the news, other times via notes from blog readers, often civil servants or government contractors. And I have regularly scanned the FCW.com site to scroll through the stories they are covering.

As I was doing this recently, I suddenly realized something. It has now been years, I think, since I have seen a story on the site about some innovation going on in government. I think I used to see stories like these with some regularity.

There have of course been new apps and capabilities over the years (typically developed by companies) that were themselves innovative, but I think the last “capital-I” innovation in government IT management was agile software development, and that was a real long time ago. Since the progress of agile in government has been pretty slow, one might have expected FCW stories about agency triumphs and challenges doing agile. But not really.

In contracting, after a burst of major innovation in the second half of the nineties, innovation has slowed. I would say the last major innovation was procurement contests/challenges, but that started at least a decade ago. A more recent innovation is using tech demos to take a “do, don’t say” approach to assessing vendors and replace or reduce lengthy written proposals, but sadly it is still a phenomenon at the margins of the system.

I am also not reading much about agency-level innovations in their policy practices, of the kind we used to hear a lot during reinventing government.

Interestingly, I would say that the most-important innovation in the government management domain in recent years is the appearance of non-traditional small IT contractors that are different from both large traditional government IT vendors and traditional government small business ones, an innovation that began in the wake of the healthcare.gov website fiasco a number of years ago. This innovation has taken hold and is continuing.

What’s happened to innovation? The short answer is I don’t know. If you believe that innovations come disproportionately from newer, younger employees, the low level of new hiring in recent years may be part of it. If the federal workforce is more stretched than in the past, people may not have the time or bandwidth to think about new ways of doing things. And the Trump administration -- with some honorable exceptions such as Matt Lira, who headed something called the Office of American Innovation -- did not exactly encourage civil servants to innovate.

I am writing this blog with a goal in mind – to remind people of the word and the idea of innovation. Can we get it back into our consciousness?