Expert panel: Creating innovation in the federal government

Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, David Bray, CIO of the Federal Communications Commission, and Karen S. Evans, former Executive Branch CIO, share important lessons on leadership, culture, social media, and much more.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

I spend a lot of time considering how to program episodes of CXO-Talk. The primary challenge is bringing together the right people to discuss interesting and important topics. When evaluating potential guests, I seek people whose ideas and activities are genuinely shaping our shared future.

Three prominent guests appeared on CXO-Talk for a discussion about the evolving impact of technology in the federal government. The conversation explored how to encourage an environment of innovation in a huge, slow-moving organization. Although all three guests are strong supporters of work done by the Executive Office of the President and the agencies, their perspectives reflect the stark realism of experience.

Also read:
US federal CIO? 'Someone from Google or Facebook will be eaten alive'
Mission impossible? White House looks for new CIO

The guests for this discussion are:

You can watch the entire CXO-Talk conversation in the video embedded below.

Here are key summary points from the conversation. These comments have been edited for length and readability.

On the economic benefits of cloud for a new consumer complaint system

David: Compared to other government agencies that spent about $3 million, we probably spent about one-ninth of that. So, 85% less and got it done in six months.

David Bray (image courtesy CXO-Talk)
David Bray (image courtesy CXO-Talk)

On innovation challenges in the federal government

David: If everyone were doing innovation, it wouldn't be labelled innovation anymore.

Some of these [challenges] are intentional by design. You know, we wanted checks and balances within the system; that's why it's slow and it's not like a start-up. The last thing you want is the department of defense to say, "We tried something. It didn't work out and we need venture capital funding otherwise we're going to go bankrupt." That's not how you want your military to work.

That said, there's this massive, exponential change in technology what's going on. We need to have a conversation with the public, with political leaders across the nation - at the state, local, and federal levels - about how can we better use technology and what does that mean to representative democracies?

Craig Newmark (image courtesy CXO-Talk)
Craig Newmark (image courtesy CXO-Talk)

We are moving forward with the transformation of FCC IT, and our budget is the same that we've always had.

Karen: Another challenge is the handoff making the process work on the back end. There is the part the citizen actually sees and that can get fixed fairly quickly. But there is a handoff that has to happen and sometimes the process is not as transparent as it needs to be, and is designed to really expedite something, but it doesn't seem like that to the end user.

So the government is trying to streamline something on the backend and really reduce the cost. But, it doesn't seem like it to the end user.

Karen S. Evans (image courtesy CXO-Talk)
Karen S. Evans (image courtesy CXO-Talk)

On Leadership and getting things done

David: I [try to] be a non-anxious presence. If I can be a calming non-anxious presence who says, "We will figure out how to do this, I welcome innovative ideas." That can help the team move forward in positive directions.

Craig: The only thing that works for me is relentless, every day nudging in a good direction.

On a very frequent basis, I just keep pushing a little bit, hopefully not too hard, trying to create social norms and expectations that kind of work. This may have been successful after six years at VA, although I'm sure I'm not the only person pushing for cultural transformation and customer centricity. So the only stuff I know is just keep pushing. That's the only thing that ever works for me.

Karen: Have a shared vision of what that outcome is that you are pushing everybody to. It's a lot of nudging. It could be called obnoxious, I think, at times, to the point where people are like, "Oh my gosh, she's calling me again." They would get it done and hit the milestones so I would quit calling them. It's the art of balancing persistence and being polite at the same time.

On IT being responsive to business needs

David: So one of the things we are trying to do here at the FCC is embed IT people in the bureaus and offices, particularly with what we are calling intrapreneurs -- entrepreneurs on the inside. There is may be some innovation and efforts happening at a higher level, but as much as possible we need to make sure they are cross-pollinating and embedded where the mission is actually occurring.

Also read: Entrepreneur Steve Blank on startups, pivots, and corporate innovation

On being a trusted data broker

David: At the FCC, instead of having 207 different IT systems with data in different locations, we are trying to move towards a model where there is one common data platform, in the cloud, across all of those different systems. Then we have a very thin user interface and reusable code, ideally with open API's that the public can connect to and other stakeholders can connect to as well, to make that trusted data broker model.

At the same time we launched, about 11 months ago, the FCC speed test app, which was actually open source. You can actually download that onto your Google phone or your iOS device for free. The code is on GitHub, you can actually look at the code and fork it if you want.

That code tests your connection speed, gives you an immediate result, and reports it to a third party that shares it with the FCC. It actually produces the first crowdsource map of connection speeds by provider across the country, whereas in the past we had to use taxpayers' resources to test connection speeds at home and in cities.

Now we can effectively involve the public, in that trusted data broker model role, and they inform policymakers [about] connection speeds across the country.

On risk and failure

David: In the event that something doesn't pan out, we'll talk through it and look at the data. We made at risk and took it. If it doesn't work out I'll take the fall, "Let's just pick ourselves up and try again and learn from that."

Karen: There's going to be failure along the way. I always called them learning experiences going forward, because we learned what didn't work. You have to learn that before the due date. If you're going to "fail," you've got to fail fast so it can inform the project quickly.

Also read: Harvard Medical professor and CIO on failure and massive transparency

On culture change and transformation

David: When you're a CIO in any organization, you are actually doing cultural change. Make sure whatever you are tackling has some meaning. If you don't listen to the edge, to the people that are actually on the frontline of what needs to be done, you're not going to be relevant. Be an effective leader by listening learning, recognizing that you're going to have blind spots. Allowing people to share their own narratives; bringing them together.

Karen: In government speak, that's what we call political awareness and business acumen. As a senior leader, you have to have political awareness and business acumen in order to see what the external forces are, to drive forth your idea.

Craig: Start with the notion that in any large hierarchical organization, the people at the bottom know a lot about what's going on and how to do it; better maybe than the people at the top--the boss. Technology can provide people with the tools by which they can work together to provide that kind of Intel to the boss, and to make concrete suggestions in how things can be done better. It just requires active support from the boss and, to a lesser extent, of middle management.

That's key to cultural transformation. Ordinary people at agencies should be given the power to act on what they know about making things better. That's a way of also showing respect for federal employees.

On the CIO role in government

Karen: Any CIOs job is the strategic use of technology. In the federal government, their job is information -- they do a lot of information collection but then have to turn around and do a lot of information dissemination. That's the point. Every agency collects information, but it's what you do with that information that then helps improve citizen services.

So part of the role of IT is to take employee innovation and get it institutionalized within the bureaucracy. During the Clinton administration, there was an effort underway that really empowered employees, which was the National Performance Review. A lot of these initiatives ended up dying on the vine when the administration changed because they were not institutionalized within the process. Part of a CIO's job, part of what my job was, is take that process and help empower the employees, because the process in the bureaucracy is not going to change any time soon.

The vision of what the CIO should do at every department and agency is that outreach. They are supposed to bring innovation, and the innovative use of technology, forward to the Secretary [of their respective agency]. Then expand it out department-wide, and they are supposed to do a constant review. But, in departments and agencies we do process for process sake, and not necessarily for the result.

Also read: CIOs make progress, but still get no respect

On social media

Craig: I see a lot of people in federal agencies, particularly in Veterans Affairs, getting a lot of crap that they don't deserve. My suggestion to reverse that is for people in agencies to point out what's being done well, and to post that on their own personal social networks. And, thereby demand the respect that they've already earned over a period of many years.

Since the press is never going to give a break to the people in government, I have suggested that federal employees start using their own personal social networks to let citizens know about good stuff going on.

How [can] empower all federal employees to start stepping up using social media, to tell citizens what's going on, and demand the respect that they've earned. Federal workers are ready to do the right thing. How do we create that tipping point?

David: I think we need more human flak jackets, for more people across the public service space, and maybe social media can provide that flak jacket.

Karen: If you go to mid-level management across government and say, "You know, we want to use social media to get good news stories out about federal workers." Everybody will go, "That sounds really great," but what does that actually mean? If it were broken down into smaller pieces, like highlighting a specific program, the program manager and his team [could] use social media to talk about that particular program. Use social media to highlight that program and then other CIOs [can say], "David is using social media and he's accomplishing a lot of things. How do I translate that back within my own department and agency?"

- - -

CXO-Talk brings together prominent executives, authors, and analysts to discuss leadership, transformation, and innovation. Join me and Vala Afshar every Friday for a new episode of CXO-Talk.

Editorial standards