Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Let’s Not Write Off the New White House Office of American Innovation Just Yet

Let’s Not Write Off the New White House Office of American Innovation Just Yet

By Dennis D McDonald

I admit my first reaction to news that Jared Kushner had been assigned to head up the new White House Office of American Innovation was outright skepticism. Kushner is already spread too thin and I've not been impressed with the caliber of the people Trump has brought into this Administration.

But after thinking about it I figured, what the heck, why not give it a shot? Any organization can do with innovation and improvement. The Federal Government is no exception.

Of course, how you define "improvement" will matter a great deal. It's a lot easier to destroy than to create. You can see this demonstrated in the proliferation of the new Administration’s rollbacks of regulations promoting health and safety.

Let's assume, though, that Kushner does oversee some positive actions designed to improve government. Is there a reason to be hopeful?

Perhaps. In a recent article Andrew Feldman and Robert Shea make some interesting recommendations for ways to increase the likelihood that this Innovation Office will succeed, including:

  1. Embed an innovation fund into every large social program.
  2. Increase the use of waivers and social programs.
  3. Continue and expand the push to use low-cost rapid experimentation in by agencies.
  4. Integrate evidence into large formula grant programs.

As you read through these recommendations you may find yourself nodding your head in agreement on some. Reading them closely you'll also see they include things that are currently being done or are being tried.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Focusing attention on experiments and innovation activities is definitely a good idea and should always be encouraged.

Therein lies the danger as well. Efforts to promote innovation and systemic change require planning, management, and resources. Requiring data and performance measures to be generated, reported, and acted on demands planning time and resources.

Demonstration projects and semi-voluntary agency coordinating bodies are not enough, as I discussed in A Project Manager's Perspective on the GAO's Federal Data Transparency Report. Recommendations from that particular report have relevance to whether this innovation effort can succeed:

  • For Federal financial transparency efforts to be successful there needs to be a plan developed that includes a timeline, specific standardization responsibilities, and ongoing congressional support with regular engagement of stakeholders.
  • Management and governance of the process needs to be beefed up. Currently the governing GAT Board is a coordinating body with strategic not implementation responsibilities. To some extent it coordinates the standardization efforts of several different agencies but it has no explicit implementation authority.
  • Whatever transparency standards and processes are developed, the “burden” on those outside government who may need to submit data to the government as part of it financial data transparency program needs to be taken into account.

I'm not one of those who believe that you can't find innovative people and programs throughout the government. Too much of the "run government like a business" mantra is just thoughtless antigovernment bashing. Having worked for decades as a consultant and project manager in both the public and private sectors I can assure you that the outdated processes can be found on both sides of the fence (along with outdated systems that just keep on ticking).

Also, as the third recommendation above points out, just changing government isn’t enough given that changes might be required as well outside the government.

Still, one major benefit of looking to the private sector for possible innovation ideas might be that the need for better management will likely be recognized. As the first two of the above GAO recommendations make clear, good ideas, technology, and a desire to change or not sufficient. You need management and resources to make things happen, not just good ideas and a willingness to collaborate.

Hopefully this new White House innovation initiative will recognize that – as long as they are trying to create, not just to destroy.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald. To find more articles like this scroll down. To find out more about my consulting go here.

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