Innovation in federal agencies is hard, but possible with these tips

Two former federal technology executives offer advice for how they successfully drove innovation at the departments of Transportation and Veterans Affairs.

A few months ago, Sultan Meghji walked out the door of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for the last time. The FDIC’s first chief innovation officer gave up after just 12 months of effort to try to bring some innovation to the federal financial sector.

If you read his commentary in Bloomberg published the day he left, it was clear he was frustrated and had a sense of despair.

Meghji told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin in April about why he left with what he called a “bruise on his forehead.”

“[T]he vast majority of people and systems in our regulatory environment are designed for the analog era, not the digital era,” he said. “In the op-ed, I wrote, I specifically called out that we have a lot of analog people making digital decisions. And it’s a real uphill battle. And I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter where you are in a lot of these agencies, you’re not actually going to be able to impact the change.”

Meghji’s frustration and decision to move on from federal service is unfortunate, but also not surprising.

There are plenty of examples of private sector experts who came in to federal service with the best of intentions only to fall flat for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s not understanding the culture of the organization. Other times it’s the frustration with how slow agencies can move.

In Meghji’s case, it may have been a case of all of the above and more.

Meghji’s commentary got me thinking: What does it take for successful innovation in the federal sector?

The Partnership for Public Service created a federal innovation council, toolkits and released a host of reports looking at what makes innovation successful in agencies.

PPS came up with 10 organization characteristics that foster innovation, including the usual like leadership support, empowering creativity among employees, creating a culture of change and the usual broad based ideas that we all think we already do well. The partnership said the 2020  Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® data shows that just under 67% of public servants feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing their jobs — more than seven points lower than private sector employees.

So I asked two former federal executives, who like Meghji came to government with limited or no previous public sector experience, took on entrenched bureaucracies and found a path toward innovation.

Ryan Cote was the Transportation Department’s chief information officer from February 2019 to January 2021. After serving in the Marines for four years, Cote worked in the private sector at Northrop Grumman, Contract Lumber, IBM and Gartner.

Marcy Jacobs served as a digital service expert for the U.S. Digital Service from February 2016 to January 2018 and then was the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ digital service from May 2017 to October 2019. She is now an associate partner at McKinsey and Company. Previously, she worked at SRA International and was a web designer.

FNN: What makes innovation in government possible at both the operational and strategic levels?

Ryan Cote is the former CIO of the Transportation Department.

RC: Two main ideas come to mind here. The first, of course, is people and culture. The second is finding great partners and technologies who/that can help you execute the work. In order to innovate (and in many ways that means modernize) IT systems, particularly in the federal government, it requires people who have the skills, passion, energy, vision and stamina to see difficult projects through from inception to completion. This is one of the reasons the federal government struggles in many ways, in places, to innovate and/or modernize. They simply lack enough great people, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are external forces at work, but some are frankly self-inflicted. I’ll take this opportunity to grumble just a bit about one of the most frustrating aspects of my time in government. And that is the labor unions. In my opinion, the federal government will never attract, train and retain top talent as long as unions are allowed to operate in the government space. Firing unproductive and unsuccessful employees is nearly impossible in the federal government and everyone knows it. Which is why the bar to perform is set so low. Too many individuals know that they can perform at a minimal effort level and still stay employed. The desire to exceed expectations and push the limits of performance were almost never on display during my tenure in government.

Stop and think about the numbers from our own Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. On average, in any given month in America, 8% of the civilian workforce is fired, quits or voluntarily separates (leaves or retires) from their job. In the federal government, it is 1.5%, most of which are retirements. The federal government almost never fires anyone, which means (by logical deduction) they believe they are the best in the country when it comes to recruiting, interviewing and hiring personnel. In the real world, in business, most human resources folks know that they make bad hires all the time. Sometimes people are just not a good fit, or they simply “don’t work out” and are asked to move on. But because the federal unions protect the bad employees, we are forced to accept the notion that the federal government never makes hiring mistake? Which we know on the face of it is just not possible. So, we are often left with under-performing employees, which makes innovation and modernization projects difficult to begin and complete successfully. OK, OK, I’ll get off my soapbox and return to the main question.

The only way innovation is possible is for leaders to seek out, find and align with the highest performing individuals in their organizations. And there are some really great people working in government, there are simply too few of them. Find your thought leaders, empower them, motivate them, support them, encourage them to think and act with boldness and energy and then let them loose to unleash their inner greatness.

After you’ve found and identified that team of teams, equip them with the tools they need to be successful. That means partnering with integrators and technologies who have a proven track record of success. Get your people the tools and the technical expertise they may be lacking and support their efforts at all times. Whether you are innovating and modernizing operational systems or planning your next 3-to-5 year strategic roadmap, your success or failure will be a direct result of the amazing (or not) people doing the work and the positive (or negative) culture you help shape and build.

MJ: Innovation is born of a need to solve a problem or to do things differently. Innovation requires a mindset of experimentation and iteration — my team at the VA was focused on bringing new ideas to the table — new approaches and new ways of working. Showing progress and results built momentum and credibility.

FNN: What were 2 things you did during your time in government to promote/accomplish innovative projects? Please describe the before and after in terms of impact on mission and/or people.

RC: Probably one of the best decisions we made was to create (for the first time) a position of chief innovation officer within the Transportation Office of the CIO. My tenure ended before we had a chance to fill that position, but I’ve heard that my successor, Cordell Schacter (doing great things there also I hear), has hired the former chief innovation officer from the city of Dallas, Texas, Laila Alequresh and she is well on her way to establishing a great new culture of innovation throughout the department. It’s crucial to have someone at a very high-level pushing innovation and a “modernization revolution!”

One fantastic and innovative project we were able to develop and deliver during my tenure at DOT was to build a grants database visualizer leveraging a visual analytics platform called Tableau. We built an interactive map of the U.S. (underpinned with all the historical and real-time grants data we had) and built a friendly user interface that allows anyone, with just a few clicks, to find any and all Transportation grants data going back over a decade. Users can drill down to the congressional district level anywhere in the U.S. and find data on all grants awardees and dollars given out. It was very well received by leadership and my understanding is that it is being copied and replicated at other federal government departments and agencies.

FNN: What were some of biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Discuss why you were able to overcome them.

Marcy Jacobs is the former executive director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s digital service.

MJ: Agencies are very risk cautious (with good reason), but frequently maintaining the status quo is seen as the lower risk option, even if the results have been mixed, than trying a new approach. Creating the space and cultivating the executive support and air cover were big priorities.

RC: The biggest obstacles were always people and budget. Simply put, (related to my earlier complaint) there aren’t enough really smart, motivated, passionate, great federal employees! Too few rock stars in the misfit band that is the [1.8] million federal bureaucrats at work in the federal government today. Somehow, and I don’t claim to have this answer, the federal government really needs to do a better job of recruiting, training, supporting and retaining the top technical talent available in today’s workforce.

As it relates to budget, there were always too few dollars allocated to the IT budget (particularly in the cyber budget) to adequately address all the modern threats out there today. I was able to get a slight increase in the DOT cyber budget as I was leaving, and I understand that that has grown even more since I left, but Congress needs to keep increasing the funds in this particular area because new threats keep emerging every day.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that I can claim any great victory in overcoming these two particular obstacles. I’d like to think that by sheer force of will I was able to have small successes here and there. But overall, these two aspects of the job were constantly frustrating to me and makes the job more difficult than it should be.

FNN: What advice would you give to other executives coming into the government for the first time about how they can be successful in innovating processes and technologies?

RC: There’s a lot to comment on here, but I’ll try to keep things succinct. Get ready for a wild ride! It’s both thrilling and terrifying to understand the scope of responsibilities and the challenges you’ll face. Never accept the status quo! Always believe that change isn’t only possible, but it is achievable with requisite effort! These institutional, monolithic, static departments and agencies are difficult to change, but change is exactly what they need and you’re being hired to almost always push change! Push yourself and your teams to discover untapped talents and reserves of energy and intellect to push the performance boundaries like never before. As soon as possible, find your thought leaders, your rock stars. Promote them. Empower and support them. Figure out who the naysayers and “dead weight” are and marginalize them. Ignore their negativity and surround yourself with only the best and the brightest, most positive folks in your office. Quickly work to forge successful alliances in HR, finance/budget, and legal offices. Make friends fast and try to avoid making enemies. Constant and steady leadership led by principle and expertise will allow you to effectively lead innovation and change!

MJ: Innovative ideas happen at all levels of an organization, especially at the front lines with customers – either on the phone or in person. Make the time and space to understand where there are opportunities for improvement and leverage and elevate great ideas from career staff who have likely been thinking about challenges for a long time but maybe didn’t have the avenue to actually try a solution.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    This innovator tilted at the bureaucratic windmill, and had the same results as Don Quixote

    Read more

    New chief innovation officer to help FDIC shape future of financial sector

    Read more
    Partnership for Public Service

    VA digital service team not resting on laurels, plans to continue to simplify online experience

    Read more

    How DOT became agile, innovative and purposeful during the coronavirus crisis

    Read more