DOT's Innovation Officer: Moonshots Are Just a Series of Small Steps


The government needs to get comfortable with innovation in increments.

The federal government might be investing in so-called innovation programs, but it still needs to embrace the concept of incremental development, senior officials say.

"Coming from Silicon Valley, everybody talks about 'moonshots,'" to denote ambitious new tech projects, Chris Gerdes, Transportation Department chief innovation officer, said during Nextgov and Government Executive's Fedstival event Tuesday. A series of government missions culminated in a moon landing, but "that lesson is lost sometimes," he said.

Too often, Gerdes said, federal employees think, "we set up a new program and we need to get it right the first time." If they're trying to engage 20 different cities on a project, "before we do 20, what if we do one?" suggested Gerdes, who is currently on leave from Stanford University, where he is a professor of mechanical engineering.

"Before we do one, maybe we can actually find a neighborhood," he added.

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One of Gerdes' challenges has been to help people understand the value of a pilot or prototype, he said—especially when many federal programs are evaluated on their ability to meet various quantitative metrics. Some of that value, Gerdes said, is to figure out things. 

Traci Walker, procurement community of practice director at the U.S. Digital Service, said she encounters a similar problem. Typically, watchdogs evaluate whether a procurement was successful based on the amount of money saved, the deployment timeline and other quantitative metrics, she said.

"If those don't actually mean good products for the people who have to use the systems that we build, then is the procurement successful, or did it just follow the nature of the contract?" Walker asked.

Walker's job is to help agencies get lightweight minimum viable products and then help them evolve the product from there. But “there’s always going to be a need for metrics" to evaluate whether this new approach to contracting is effective, she said.

In one case, USDS worked with the Small Business Administration on a contract awarded three and a half months after the solicitation, and they had their first product live in five months. The first version was only a small component of the end goal, but it was considered a success because USDS and SBA were "able to get something out in the first six months of the contract being on-boarded," Walker said.