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Commentary: Back to Basics in Gov Tech Innovation

"The role of innovation as a concept and as a practice is continuing to become more important for state and local governments. ... Industry partners play an essential role to this ongoing movement."

The term “innovation” has lost its punch after years and years of being overused and can elicit a strong reaction in some, given its potential to have limited substance and meaning. It’s been my experience that when innovation is used with intention and channeled in a practical way, the impact can be significant. As an advocate for innovation across the public sector, I’ve seen that it can spark a movement, emphasize a user-centered focus to serve customers and/or residents, and be able to sustainably change the operating culture and empower the workforce.

Where to Start?
So an important question to consider is how can innovation be utilized to initiate a movement across agencies, departments, and/or programs? How does one start, given how overwhelming it can be to change a culture?

Across the last decade, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with teams across the federal, state, and local levels of government, and there are some fundamentals for creating an innovation movement (discussed in the highlighted examples):

  • Ideas are identified and driven by how the service, program, and/or users could benefit
  • Executive sponsors are actively involved and serve as advocates for the change
  • Initiating work occurs in an environment that is conducive to testing, piloting and iteration
  • An overarching strategic vision is established for creating a new way of operating to serve the public
While staying current on the latest technologies and coming up with bold ideas are important aspects of innovation, the ability to practically deliver against some initial ideas, initiatives, or projects is crucial to create momentum and kick-start a larger movement. It’s a starting point and can sometimes be the hardest part to initiate given resistance to change, competing priorities, and/or lack of follow through to progress with an idea and create something concrete.

When leaders and teams see something that has been practically implemented with tangible deliverables, outputs, or outcomes, it creates demand for how they can benefit, how their ideas can be delivered in a similar capacity, and/or how they can take what has been completed into their work environment. This point of inflection, combined with the strategic vision and an actively involved executive sponsor, can create a shift that can begin to change culture and empower a workforce to think differently.

Across the federal, state, and local levels of government, teams have been building innovation capacity and technology capabilities that are part of a digital innovation movement. On a practical level, innovation has also proven to be a catalyst for how systemic culture norms can change across bureaucracies and systems in the form of transforming procurement, creating a mobile workforce, and revamping hiring processes to support the talent needs and demands to better serve the public. 

State and local examples
During my tenure with the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS), the collective goal was to sustain a culture of innovation to demonstrate how a government agency can, and should, be more responsive to the needs of Californians and create a rewarding work environment for state staff. 

An integral part of how this was initially accomplished started with a user-centered innovation movement and creating an initial cohort of 100-plus change agents through project-based innovation teams that were focused on identified user and/or program needs. The team-based model was driven by department leaders and their teams and was centered on a few core innovation practices with the ability to implement in months rather than years. Those practices included the use of data and analytics to improve decision-making; user-centered design approaches to create and adopt digital services; creating customer-centric eligibility models; and cross-departmental collaboration to improve the efficiencies of programs and teams.

While the local public-sector perspective and approach to create an innovation movement can be different and the investments to support residents can vary, the intention and priorities remain similar. An example of this idea at work is Los Angeles County’s Technology Innovation Challenge to support homelessness. Leaders engaged in design-thinking workshops to first identify programmatic and user needs and then created solution areas where the technology community can innovate to ultimately improve services and outcomes for those experiencing homelessness.

User-centered strategic planning for technology across local government can be a catalyst for an innovation movement, starting with direct workforce engagement through practical innovation workshops. The five Technology Strategic Goals across Los Angeles County include:

  • Empowering the workforce
  • Seeing data as a utility across departments
  • Engaging civic communities digitally
  • Transforming procurement
  • Mobility
These goals were collectively created through design-thinking workshops that distilled ideas and input from over 250 Los Angeles County employees. To support the delivery of these goals, cross-departmental project teams have been mobilized to create measurable objectives and a road map for implementation.

The role of innovation as a concept and as a practice is continuing to become more important for state and local governments. The fundamentals and practical approaches highlighted to initiate an innovation movement can apply to many government settings and ideally begin to change culture. Industry partners play an essential role in this ongoing movement. Their ability to engage can be influenced by if and how they create products, resources, and services that ultimately address and emphasize the needs of people accessing government services and the needs of individuals and teams supporting the delivery of those services.

Niles Friedman has more than 15 years’ executive management and advisory experience in the private and public sectors across the U.S., the European Union and Africa. He has worked for 10 years to increase innovation capacity and enhance technology capabilities across the federal government, the State of California, Los Angeles County, and international health ministries. He is an Executive Adviser with Star Insights, based in Los Angeles.