The many mothers of invention

Innovation can be sparked by all sorts of situations, panelists say.

Innovations such as a 2006 Transportation Department pilot program to reduce traffic jams and exhaust pollution can be spawned by a sudden influx of funding, panelists at Government Executive Media Group’s Excellence in Government conference said Monday. Or they can be prompted by the dearth of funding agencies face today.

Speakers from the Transportation and State departments and the intelligence community described innovative projects they’d worked on, sharing their failures as well as their successes and the lessons they learned.

Here’s what they said about the sources of their innovations:

  • Kerry O'Connor is the program manager of Sounding Board, a State Department online bulletin board where the diplomatic community discusses vexing issues and proposed fixes.

    “For us it’s a mix of technology changing and leadership coming in and giving support,” she said. “We have great executive support at the State Department. Secretary [Hillary] Clinton came in and said, ‘I want to hear from you; I want your ideas.’ At the same time, employee ideation programs were starting to get pretty well-known [in the private sector].”

  • Fred Hassani is the chief executive officer of Tesla Government Inc. and a former Foreign Service officer. He helped develop Intellipedia, a Wikipedia-like system for sharing intelligence information.

    “In the intelligence community: 9/11. That’s it. They were willing to try to share information in broader ways and it opened up lots of doors that absolutely would not have been opened otherwise,” he said.

  • Tyler Duvall is a former assistant secretary at the Transportation Department and an associate principal at McKinsey & Co. He managed an initiative to reduce traffic congestion in major U.S. cities. It faltered over a New York City pilot program that failed to win approval from the state’s legislature.

    “It was a confluence of this acute problem that was starting to get significant attention . . . and this moment where resources came in” as the result of formerly earmarked funds that were freed up by the 2006 power shift in Congress, he said. “We’d luckily decided about 18 months in advance of this that we were going to have an off-site [conference] where we were going to decide what we were going to spend the next four years on. At that off-site, 78 of the top 80 leaders in the department -- career and political -- decided congestion would be the top priority.”