Innovating from the Top: Federal Chief Innovation Officers


The federal bureaucracy might not seem like a mecca for out-of-the-box thinkers looking to effect large-scale change but increasingly, agencies are recruiting people to do just that.

Federal obsession with innovation is rampant. The government appears intent upon emulating a Silicon Valley-style startup culture that can keep up with the evolution of commercial technology—or at least shake up how agencies approach problems.

Under President Barack Obama, the government saw an influx of chief innovation officers whose roles span from encouraging employees to come up with their own solutions for internal problems to developing the technological platforms that would help them do that.

As President Donald Trump’s position unclear, at least one appears eager to formalize the position. For instance, Defense Secretary Ash Carter in October said he would take the advice of his Defense Innovation Board—populated by prominent tech executives including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—and recruit a chief innovation officer for the Pentagon.

But critics argue the chief innovation officer title is too broad to allow its holder to make meaningful changes; in both the federal government and in private industry, their responsibilities are “very poorly defined,” Forrester analyst Rick Parrish told Nextgov. “Practically speaking, it’s just another technology-focused executive who’s doing a job that a CIO or a CTO or one of the other senior digital officers should be doing anyway.”

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