Government Innovation. What to Do When You Know the Question, but Not the Answer
Innovation is a topic that continues to draw attention in public sector. How can innovation be effective in organizations that, by design and tradition, have low tolerance for both risk and change? The proposed Government Effectiveness Advanced Research Center (GEAR) is conceived to stimulate technology upgrade pilot programs for agencies. The end goal is to accelerate IT modernization, increase the skills of the government workforce and accelerate innovation. This also stimulates consideration of the question, “How does government best drive innovation?”
Some approaches subscribe to the need to separate business operations from innovation. Gartner’s notion of “Bimodal IT” is the practice of managing two different work styles: One is focused on what is well known, with predictable results. The other is aimed toward exploration. Gartner’s point is that bimodal IT is necessary to allow innovation to flourish in a fast-changing environment, while also adeptly managing the current operations. As with any organizational concept, it involves people, process and technology to be able to collaborate across the business, increase agility and drive innovation.
Government has been evolving the approach to innovation to include this concept of separation of styles of work. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently announced a program to fund a multi-year $2B investment of the next generation artificial intelligence called “AI Next”. This program has two facets. One focuses on automating critical DoD business processes, such as security clearance vetting or accrediting software systems for operational deployment; improving the robustness and reliability of AI systems. The other facet focuses on funding a series of innovative investments, the Artificial Intelligence Exploration (AIE) program. The AIE establishes a series of high-risk, high payoff projects where researchers will work to establish the feasibility of new AI concepts within 18 months of award. This program is bolstered by streamlined contracting procedures and rapid funding mechanisms to move research from proposal to project inception within three months of an opportunity announcement. This is an example of the bimodal approach in practice.
Under what circumstances does this separation model make sense for government? We were inspired by the elements of Uncertainty and Directedness in a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) article, “Innovation is a Many Splendored Thing” to consider the answer. (See diagram below.)
The DARPA approach reflects the type of lightly directed innovation with uncertain results. This can complement the tightly directed, requirements-driven certainty in most government programs. The more open approach suggests the notion that at least one type of public sector innovation thrives when unleashed from the low risk tolerance of most government organizations, and when offered safe cover to experiment, and even fail. Think of this as moving along the continuum toward “Uncertainty” where the element of “Directedness” is more about guiding than forcing. Outside-in direction is about providing that safe corral and accelerated processes, not necessarily about dictating, the methods and outcomes. In fact, in these examples, less directed experimentation may win the day by nurturing less fettered creativity and quick insights. The idea of setting innovation capabilities outside the operational organization has been adopted by a number of organizations and has some lineage of success to recommend it.
Not every innovation needs to be a moonshot, nor should it be. Not every innovation project is high-risk, resource intensive, mission critical, nor delivers immediate ROI. If your organization knows the question, but doesn’t know the answer, consider a bimodal approach by planting innovation initiatives outside the operational organization…and see what blooms.
Michael Donovan, Chief Technologist, Manufacturing, DXC Technology
Judy Douglas, Client Industry Executive, Perspecta
Dan Gilbert, Strategist, Hewlett Packard Enterprise
David Park, Director, Digital Services, Perspecta
Diana Zavala, Director, Analytics and Data Services, Perspecta