Returning Innovation to the Federal Government with Information Technology
The nation is engaged in two wars and faces the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The federal agenda includes finding ways to provide 47 million uninsured Americans with health coverage, becoming energy self-sufficient and improving the education system. All the while, the government must pay Social Security recipients, care for veterans, fund highway construction, ensure worker health and safety, regulate drugs and medical devices and undertake many more complicated and important tasks.
If the incoming Obama administration wants to effectively deal with these urgent issues and provide a high level of service to American taxpayers, it must modernize government and be ready to embrace innovative solutions.
This may sound simple, but it will require a new mindset, a change in leadership, improved management capabilities and different methods for making IT investment decisions.
As it currently stands, the government is resistant to change, taking risks and innovation. There was a time when this was not the case, when the government helped create leading-edge technologies like supercomputers and the Internet to meet big challenges. Today, government lags an average 10 to 15 years behind the private sector in incorporating the latest technologies and processes to improve operations. The result is that the government is often viewed as unresponsive, inefficient and bureaucratic.
The federal government spends more than $70 billion directly on IT projects and over $30 billion indirectly, but report after report has found that the federal IT systems are plagued by bad management, poor planning and a failure to use best practices. For a wide variety of reasons, procurement practices and management reward caution, not risk. This has led to utilization of legacy technologies, resulting in incremental improvements at best while transformative technologies that could make a meaningful difference have fallen by the wayside. Rather than encourage innovation by industry, the government's management and procurement processes have penalized new ideas, constrained communication between buyer and seller, and emphasized risk avoidance rather than return on investment.
To bring about change and real reform, the Obama administration will have to break with the past and take a number of bold new steps. A key watch word must be innovation. The administration must engage in market research for new IT investments, and seek state of the art answers and new solutions before the procurement process begins.
The Obama transition team is defining an innovation framework built around a new Chief Technology Officer, a major step in the right direction. We believe the new administration must go further, placing the CTO as the head of a new Government Innovation Agency that would serve as an incubator for new ideas, serve as a central repository for best practices and 3040 Williams Drive, Suite 610, Fairfax, VA 22031 www.actgov.org ● (p) (703) 208.4800 (f) ● (703) 208.4505 Government and Industry IT: one vision, one community 3
incorporate an innovation review in every project. As we envision it, the Government Innovation Agency would house Centers of Excellence that would focus on ways to achieve performance breakthroughs and leverage technology to improve decision making, institute good business practices and improve problem solving by government employees.
It also would be wise for the new administration to consider choosing a small percentage of projects selected for investment to be designated as "high risk/high reward," and managed with a risk acceptance approach that recognizes that failures will occur. Agency program and executive managers must be educated in managing and encouraging innovation and risk, and better options for encouraging risk acceptance and risk sharing with industry must be developed.
Small improvements in major federal programs or continued use of old line technologies can longer be accepted. The old ways of doing things can no longer be tolerated. World leading technology management skills and innovative technologies must be applied by the government to meet the 21st century challenges.
This paper was prepared as part of the ACT-IAC 2008 Presidential Transition Project