Why Agencies Should Be as Innovative as Tech Companies

Forget the misconception that government lags the private sector in cutting-edge use of technology.

On a cold January morning, the federal government was duly dubbed an innovator for its use of technology. At a ceremony in its gleaming new atrium, the General Services Administration was honored with a Harvard Innovations in American Government Award for its work on Challenge.gov, a web platform encouraging the public to help solve government challenges.

Read that first paragraph again, because it's a common misconception that the words "government" and "innovation" rarely appear in such close proximity. Fortunately, that is changing.

Challenge.gov launched in 2010. Its premise: By crowdsourcing solutions, using prizes and other incentives, the government can help ensure that it pays only for success and engages the brightest minds in a unique public-private partnership. In bestowing the honor, Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovation in American Government Program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said, "Challenge.gov enables agencies to solve public problems in a more effective manner."

Agencies Aim High

Greater effectiveness is perhaps the noblest promise of technology to the federal government. It's no longer enough to deliver services to citizens — agencies must deliver them more efficiently, and in such a way that the public perceives and appreciates their value. Innovative companies understand this; more and more, an innovative government understands too.

But there's more to it. Budgets are under pressure in every corner of government. No one needs to tell federal technology managers that they're being asked to do more with less. Innovation is critical to thriving in austere times, whether it's exploiting cloud services to help consolidate data centers or effectively mining terabytes of data in order to make better decisions. Increasingly, government won't — and can't afford to — lag the private sector in innovation.

It starts at the top. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program brings together private-sector visionaries and government leaders to collaborate on new solutions. Last summer, the program welcomed a second round of innovators, working on such projects as the Open Data Initiative, whereby agencies make mountains of information available to entrepreneurs, researchers and others for use in cutting-edge applications. And don't confuse the Open Data Initiative with the similarly innovative Big Data Initiative, which the administration launched in 2012 to fund research — public and private — into new tools and techniques for mining very large data sets. Both programs stand to put government service on a similar footing with some of today's best-known web services.

What do programs such as Challenge.gov, the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the Open Data and Big Data initiatives have in common? They embrace principles that made household names of Google, Microsoft and many others, and they encourage participation by the best and brightest, whether those people come from inside or outside the Beltway.

Agencies should look for chances to participate in these and other programs. No one knows their mission better than they do, and these days, the mission requires innovation.

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Feb 12 2014