Do You See Yourself in the Room?


This moment in time presents a unique opportunity for the government to embrace representative innovation.

When the U.S. government is developing artificial intelligence applications that could impact services to hundreds of millions of people—no two alike—who is in the room? When digital technology is leveraged for a government website that could make life simpler and more efficient for a hugely diverse set of users, who is at the table?

Does the room of people, or the Zoom of people, look anything like America?

Alondra Nelson, the newly named White House Office of Science and Technology Policy deputy director for science and society, raised that question in January as she made the important point that “Science at its core is a social phenomenon. It’s a reflection of our people, of our relationships and of our institutions.”  

She added: “As a Black woman researcher, I am keenly aware of those who are missing from these rooms. I believe we have a responsibility to work together to make sure that our science and technology reflects us, and when it does it reflects all of us, that it reflects who we truly are together. This too is a breakthrough. This too is an innovation that advances our lives.”

As chief innovation officer for Booz Allen Hamilton, I am certain and enthused that this moment in time presents a unique opportunity for the government to engage seriously to address this and other underlying issues that limit our ability to achieve equity and advancements through more representative innovation. The nation is in the midst of a deep and honest conversation about race and social equity. The government in recent years has made advances in AI, digital, cyber and other technologies that can now be leveraged at the next level. And a new administration is taking a fresh look at how to better serve the public in a more representative way. 

My company has supported changes in administrations since World War II, and I’ve seen that each change creates opportunity of some kind. Right now, there are dozens of actions the government can take to leverage the power of diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, to drive innovation, and at the top of my own list are five steps that can take agencies from good intentions to delivering results.

But first, let’s look at research that shows us the depth of power that DEI holds to drive innovations that can improve life for all Americans. Dozens of studies show the positive link between diversity and performance, but a 2013 study presented in Harvard Business Review specifically looked at the link to innovation. Covering 1,800 professionals, 40 case studies and many focus groups and interviews, investigators looked at the impact on innovation of inherent diversity, such as gender and race, and acquired diversity, such as traits gained from experience. The report notes, “When minorities form a critical mass and leaders value differences, all employees can find senior people to go to bat for compelling ideas and can persuade those in charge of budgets to deploy resources to develop those ideas.”

Employees of companies where leaders reflected both types of diversity were 45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market. At companies whose leaders lacked this diversity, the study found that women were 20% less likely than straight white men to win endorsement for their ideas; people of color were 24% less likely; and LGBTQ employees were 21% less likely. “This costs their companies crucial market opportunities because inherently diverse contributors understand the unmet needs in under-leveraged markets,” the authors said.

How to change that? Here are five opportunities, reflecting my own experience supporting government clients for decades:

1. Focus on the power of combining inherent and acquired diversity. Assessing success in the diversity of an organization too often focuses heavily on measurable numbers—how many women, or how many races represented. As the HBR study showed, that approach leaves too much impact on the table. Qualities of acquired diversity, professional and life experiences that are influential to one’s thinking take a much greater commitment to identify and leverage, and must be combined with a commitment to inherent diversity in order to make a lasting impact.

A first-level tactic is a commitment to direct communication to identify these qualities. If the government is serving a user base—veterans, farmers, students, seniors, etc.—invite a range of these users to be part of the solution; talk to them and learn the full breadth of their differences as part of the process. When assembling an internal government team, interview potential members about their diverse experiences, and commit to layering that information into final selection.

2. Start at the top. As the HBR study showed, it matters who the membership of an organization sees in its leadership and the resulting influence of those leaders’ diverse qualities. The commitment to the diversity of the Biden cabinet sets a great example. But getting those leaders to the top takes a serious long-term internal commitment in the form of sponsorship, development and other programs. In my own innovation organization, we’ve established a sponsorship program that links vice presidents to more junior proteges for opportunities and have other programs in the pipeline. An organization’s tactics may vary, but the essential component is commitment with accountability.

3. Move anti-bias design concepts from goals to imperatives. Inclusive and participatory design concepts are seen as an essential element to eliminate racial, gender and socioeconomic bias in the design of digital, AI and other systems, but are they being fully embraced to drive the greatest innovation? The complexity and press of time for design delivery can short-circuit some of these good intentions. 

Innovation teams need to focus on a well-thought process to operationalize these concepts and make that a measurable, required step in the design timeline. One component is accessibility: determining how to get and use deeper layers of diversity data. While the government is providing greater access to data for design, it’s time to challenge how that data can be more reflective of diverse experiences, and whether the government can incentivize industry to contribute more diverse-specific data sets.

4. Integrate DEI into digital customer experience organizations. As the government looks to better serve a nation of users online, agencies are increasingly establishing and growing customer experience organizations, or CXO, but these efforts are often separated from traditional components within organizations that focus on DEI initiatives. As the CXO is chartered with understanding and serving the customer, I believe we’ll see dramatic impact in the creation of equitable services when the role of CXO grows to encompass the DEI imperative within its core design. 

5. Embrace contract reform measures in the name of inclusion. No matter how much the government wants to embrace innovation, it’s at the mercy of contract laws that often tie its hands. Agencies need to more fully engage efforts underway to open the door for more creative approaches to serving people that can be transformational. One example is the increasing use of technology challenges to differentiate between offerors. In addition to submitting the standard proposal, contractors are increasingly being asked to demonstrate their technical skills and problem-solving abilities by competing in real-time software/model development tasks. This type of competitive acquisition process opens up the playing field and rewards innovation. The government also has the opportunity to better leverage the diversity of small businesses—particularly African American businesses—by broadening current small business contracting requirements to address a more diverse population. 

These ideas are contributions to a list that will inevitably grow through input from many others, spurring momentum for greater attention and results to create a more inclusive and equitable government and future through innovation supported by the presence of diverse people and perspectives. At this moment in our history, we know our government and its people need the benefits of equity and innovation more than ever. I’m excited that, right now, the door is open to make much more progress: Now, who will be invited into the room?

Susan Penfield is an executive vice president and chief innovation officer for Booz Allen Hamilton.