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Implementing Innovation in Government

December 11th, 2013 · 1 Comment · innovation

<This blog post was originally published on Powertek Corporation’s website:


and is republished here with their permission>


The issue of achieving innovation in Government is a pretty hot topic right now. In this blog entry, I talk about how well the Government is doing in being more innovative; explore some of the reasons why they have trouble doing so; and look at one agency that is doing significant innovative work with mobile technology to see what lessons we can learn from them. The current administration has done a good job of emphasizing the importance of innovation. Some examples of their action steps include:

Steve Ressler, the founder of GovLoop, an active on-line community of government professionals, recently wrote about some of the issues he feels impede innovation in government,http://www.govdelivery.com/blog/2013/09/10-ingredients-missing-in-federal-government-innovation/. It is worth reading; in his blog Ressler also proposes a series of steps that might help overcome these impediments.

Even with all of this focus, it is not obvious that these efforts are yet bearing much demonstrable fruit despite the well-meaning support of many talented and energetic staff.

Why is that? Let me use some thoughts from a graduate capstone class I teach at the University of Maryland University College about how to Manage Technology and Innovation.

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We spend much of the semester discussing how to manage both internally and externally developed technological innovation. We review a general methodology built around three broad steps: planning, implementation, and a combined evaluation (measuring the level of success) and control (corrections based on those measurements).

Such an approach increases the chances of innovation success.

However, the conclusion in the class most semesters is the overall success or failure of any innovation initiative is derived from the strategic objectives of an organization, as much or more than any specific implementation methodology.

If the strategic objectives are well understood and the potential innovation is strongly tied back to enhancing those objectives then a structured approach will increase the likelihood of success. If the objectives are not clear and the innovation initiatives will not clearly impact those objectives, then the initiative most likely will not be successful.

Let us look at one agency that has been active in using mobile technologies and the cloud to enable innovative approaches to their work.

While I had read an article or two about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA,www.noaa.gov, home of the National Weather Service, relating to mobile technology implementations, it was not until I reached into NOAA and talked to some of the staff that I recognized how creative they were.

For example, NOAA uses Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, AUVs, to perform underwater survey missions. These vehicles perform their surveys without operator intervention. NOAA has dispersed over 3,000 of these Argo Floats to collect information about the upper ocean heat content and salinity.

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Quoting from a NOAA summary: NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer (EX) is the only federally funded U.S. ship dedicated to ocean exploration. Telepresence, using real-time broadband satellite communications, connects the ship and its discoveries live with audiences ashore. Unlike standard expeditions, most of the scientists participating in EX missions remain on shore. Via telepresence, live images from the seafloor and other science data flow over satellite and high-speed Internet pathways to scientists standing watches at a series ofExploration Command Centers ashore…or at the comfort of their own desks.

NOAA implements telework in a pretty creative fashion.

Another program at NOAA is their Wave Glider efforts. Wave Gliders are Unmanned Maritime Vehicles (UMVs). They are “made-up of a 7-foot long surfboard-like float …tethered to a 23-foot-cord attached to a submerged glider …” They transmit data about wave actions using solar panels to recharge batteries.These are just a small sample of the kinds of programs that NOAA is working on, all innovative and all using state-of-the-art technologies. While all had to go through the normal hurdles that all Federal procurement do, the kind of hard slog that many of the more well known efforts have suffered with did not occur with these initiatives.

Why is that?

The lesson to be learned here is that even more so than in the private sector, those innovations that tie directly back to improving the agency or department mission in an understandable fashion will get the strongest kind of day-to-day support. Those innovations that are enablers but do not directly impact on the mission will have difficulty getting the attention of organizational executive management on a consistent basis.

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NOAA has been successful with innovative implementations of mission-specific programs. Many of the programs to optimize IT infrastructure have had a much slower implementation path. In a future blog post I will return to this topic and talk a bit more about how the Government might modify its approach to shared services to increase its ability to be innovative in that area.

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