3 ways to spark innovation in government

Commentary Paul Brubaker
Director of Government Solutions, AirWatch by VMware

At a time of high levels of citizen frustration, cynicism with government and low government employee morale, much is being written and said about the need to encourage innovation in government. But too much of the discussion involves the challenges of innovation, rather than the concrete steps the federal government can take to create an environment that encourages innovation.

Paul Brubaker
True, I’ve seen interesting and potentially valuable approaches being tested, but these efforts do little to address the underlying systemic and structural issues that prevent government from innovating on a meaningful scale. Highly publicized and well-meaning efforts at promoting innovation in government, such as the White House Innovation Fellows and the Health and Human Services “entrepreneurs-in-residence” program, have all run headlong into the longstanding and ossified administrative support practices of the federal government.

Specifically, the government’s financial management, human capital and acquisition systems stifle innovation, slow progress and leave many once- dedicated individuals irritated, frustrated and cynical about the government’s ability to solve longstanding and serious challenges. Meanwhile, the pace of innovation in the commercial and consumer sectors is accelerating, leaving government at risk of becoming even less relevant to new generations of citizens.

How long are we going to let outdated practices, inefficient processes and unequipped leadership disarm real innovation?

We can no longer afford to have a system that pushes innovators aside in favor of administrative process owners who matter-of-factly, and with little challenge or rebuttal, hide behind law, regulation, policy and practice to extinguish innovation. Too, many in Congress believe wholesale change is out of the question. Such members regard innovation as too big a challenge.

The result: Government can only take modest steps. Yet perhaps these modest steps can lead the way to broader reform and a sustained environment to foster and encourage agency and governmentwide innovation.

I recommend three specific actions.

  • First, create point persons for innovation. Each major agency should have one person charged with thinking about how to apply innovation across the organization. This person is tasked with exploring new approaches, business models and technologies to drive transformational improvements to the mission and operational functions of the agency. They should directly advise the secretary and deputy secretary.

    There actually is one person in each major agency who’s supposed to drive agency innovation. The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 designated the chief information officers. Most CIOs have missed the mark. The position has devolved into an operationally focused IT role. Too often, CIOs become singularly obsessed with infrastructure and cybersecurity, thus completely missing their original raison d’être.

    A proliferation of “chiefs” in government has produced people not noticeably in charge of anything. That’s why creating and defining the role of a chief innovation officer (let’s call it CNO) or modifying the chief technology officer’s (CTO) role to focus on the technology enablement and demonstration of new processes is a critical first step.

  • Create a clearinghouse for innovation in agencies with a Chief Innovation Officer. Allow this new CNO to have unencumbered authority, direction and control of:
    1. A modest budget and how it is managed;
    2. People and how they are managed;
    3. Acquisition and purchasing for creating innovation;
    4. Demonstration of new models that leverage technology.

    This budget and operation will be exempt from the laws, regulation and policy that currently govern these functions and constrain innovation. At the same time, the management of these functions should be performed using commercial practices specified in the authorizing legislation, with new and more relevant finance and procurement rules. Moreover, any process created under the new CNO will be exempt from the legally imposed prescriptive constraints on design and testing — with an exclusive focus on creating measurable improvement in outcomes.

  • Ensure that the Chief Innovation Officers’ funded activity be established in a way to demonstrate that the CNO has directly created or is in the process of creating measurable outcomes. In exchange for the bureaucratic relief from the regulations and policies that have stifled innovation, new CNOs must focus on their project portfolio and clearly describe the measurable improvements in mission and operational performance. Ironically, exempting this function from federal financial management practices will simplify tracking costs and demonstrating business case realization.

    The objective is to create an environment for driving and executing innovation across government in a manner that leads by example and can be sustained. These three steps will give agencies tools to create an innovation-friendly environment, moving away from prescribing how things get done. Let’s replace that structure with one that promotes innovative processes, approaches and technologies better — and thereby a more agile and responsive 21st century federal government.


Paul Brubaker is director of government solutions for AirWatch by VMware. As a former Senate staff member, he helped draft the Federal Information Technology Reform Act, also known as the Clinger-Cohen Act. He also served as the director of Planning and Performance Management for the Department of Defense, as well as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense/Deputy CIO.

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