Jun 14 2007

Growing Great Technology

Feds at agencies that don't fear the bleeding edge offer tips on nurturing innovation.

Ask most systems chiefs in government about trying to promote risky projects, and they will emphasize that the government is risk averse. But in the information technology arena, some agencies are finding ways to balance risk with achieving breakthroughs.

“A lot of times, people will tell you innovation is wrong or flies in the face of what is OK,” says Steve Dennis, technical director for the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). But it’s not, he says, adding that he sees a trend in government toward leading IT and technology development rather than following industry trendsetters.

Here are tips from Dennis and other feds on how to foster new IT in government:

Spend Small

The Coast Guard has established a venture capital fund and solicits ideas from across the organization. Anyone can enter a suggestion for a project into the fund’s database. A review team then selects projects and provides funds for pilots and small tests. “It’s seed money to allow folks to do good work,” says Capt. Joseph M. Re, chief of the Office of Performance Management and Decision Support for the Coast Guard.

Make It Count

S&T includes specific criteria in its Homeland Security acquisitions that give points to bidders when they include risky or innovative approaches. Dennis says agencies need to reach out to vendors and stress the desire to try new IT approaches, even in limited ways.

Play With the Vendors

In his job with the Army, Lt. Col. Clinton J. Wallington III makes a point of participating in beta tests and signing up for trials of projects. These can lead to creating great applications early and in having some sway in how products ultimately will help meet government requirements. Wallington is director of advanced technology for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems.

Beg Forgiveness Later Rather Than Ask for Permission

Both Re and Dennis say agencies obviously have to work within the government’s legal and regulatory bounds but also argue that there’s plenty of room to act first on cool projects in small ways and then get support for broader implementation. “At the end of the day, it’s truly hard to stop a really innovative idea,” Dennis says.

Buddy Up to the Bureaucracy

Wallington tries to figure out how a risky project might be derailed by legal reviews or project managers, then goes to those people in advance and makes a deal that will help both parties if a test project is successful. “You have to co-opt the bureaucracy to get things done,” he says.

Take Advantage of Failures

If a pilot flops — or even a larger initiative goes awry — Dennis suggests doing a postmortem and documenting the lessons learned. Failures help define “what is possible and what is not.” They also sometimes result in a great technology that was not the intended goal, he says.

Dennis, Re and Wallington discussed the role that innovation plays at their agencies this month at the Management of Change conference in Richmond, Va.