Innovation is one of those overused words in the federal sector. Every agency wants innovation. Every vendor says what they do is innovative.
So what makes a program or initiative innovative? Like the Supreme Court famously said about something else, “you know it when you see it.”
That’s the case with the FBI’s new Innovation Council.
Jeremy Wiltz, the FBI’s assistant director IT enterprise services division, said the council, which is just getting started, will bring together a diverse set of people, both those who have been at the bureau for a long time and newer employees, to generate ideas and focus areas.
“I have IT specialists that support tier one, that support desktops and visit customers. In our headquarters building with 11 floors and people going all over the place, we came up with an idea of a solutions center. We kind of tried to make it like an Apple store where people come to us in a central location in the building and get service,” Wiltz said at a recent AFCEA Bethesda event. “I had a couple of folks who were instrumental in making this very successful. One of them came to me and asked ‘how do we do more of this?’ And he said, ‘there are more of us like me.’ So I said, let’s come up with this idea of an innovation council.”
He said the goal of the council is to encourage employees to come up with ideas to improve processes and procedures and have a place to go where someone will assuredly listen to them.
“I want to hear from them and be able to say, ‘is that a tasking you can take?’ I don’t want to derail or circumvent their management so they will have to take this on as additional duty,” he said. “But it’s very rare to find those kinds of people who came to me. If I ignore this, I’m ignoring a whole set of people who are motivated to do things and not just sit around and wait for things to happen.”
One obvious idea the council may work on is franchising the solutions center concept to other FBI offices at Quantico or regionally.
“Franchising in the government, who’s talking about that? That, in and of itself, is an innovative idea. That wouldn’t have come about if these people weren’t motivated themselves and willing to approach me,” he said. “So having that kind of courage, I thought I have to take hold of that. I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
Wiltz offered an update to the council last week. He said the innovation council continues to come together.
“The individuals leading the effort are currently working behind the scenes to ensure alignment on mission, vision and goals prior to establishing a formal charter,” he said in an email to Federal News Network. “The innovation council will be composed of a diverse cadre of employees, working in the field and at headquarters across a variety of roles (IT and non-IT). Participants will share an interest in leveraging innovation solutions to make the FBI more efficient. Topics and priorities are still to be determined but one of the primary focus areas will be improving customer service.”
What makes the FBI innovation council so “innovative” is the simple fact that they are listening to the employees on the ground. Too often agencies want innovation to come from outside the agency, like the Defense Department’s Innovation Board. The DIB is made up of well-known technology industry experts like Eric Schmidt, founder of Google, and professors from Duke University, the California Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, who are helping the Pentagon take on enterprisewide issues.
Other efforts such as the Obama administration’s SAVE awards petered out after several years, and it’s unclear if any of the ideas that emerged from the frontline employees were ever fully implemented.
Michael Giuffrida, the CEO of Acendre, said engaging employees and giving them a real voice to drive change is much easier said than done.
“There are a lot of organizations out there where they give employees the opportunity to be heard through things like pulse surveys or in other ways. But how do you take that feedback and act on it?” Giuffrida said. “It’s important for employees to see the change that comes from their ideas. If they don’t see that change that’s where these efforts fail. It’s all about how you turn ideas into action and close the feedback process. That is where you see positive outcomes of engagement.”
Giuffrida said employee engagement “fits hand-in-glove” with increasing productivity and mission success.
“[From] the metrics we look at – on average – people are losing $9,000 per employee a year due to a lack of engagement in terms of productivity. If you have 100,000 employees, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “So if you can move the needle 10 percent-to-20 percent, that’s a lot. It’s important and getting mission critical especially when we are all fighting all the dynamics in the federal space.”
Giuffrida added that the dynamics include budget uncertainty, shutdowns and the arduous hiring process, all of which make it more difficult to bring innovative approaches into government.
Not if, but when apps move to the cloud
And this brings us back to the FBI’s innovation council.
Wiltz said new ideas and approaches become more important as the FBI moves more apps to the cloud.
“I see going into the cloud as a force multiplier. You have Amazon, Microsoft, Google’s security operations center on top of your SoC and their layers of security on top of your layers of security,” Wiltz said. “My boss has put out a vision, a toolbox of the future. We are beginning to plant it in the minds of people who don’t think the way we think or don’t think about moving toward mobility. We are starting to plant those seeds.”
And what better way for those seeds to grow and prosper than by seeking the input and backing of the people who are going to reap the harvest.