Why Does The Government Struggle So Much With Innovation?

29 July, 2016 / Articles
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Earlier this month I was invited to attend a US Government innovation workshop held by a large government agency to solve a major issue of current global importance. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together an array of organizations to pitch innovative ideas to help the government find outside-of-the-box solutions. On the surface this sounded like a fantastic idea and a great argument for how innovation can be infused into government, yet the reality of the workshop’s execution instead reinforced the sad fact that government severely struggles with changing how it does business.

Participants in the workshop were prescreened by what the organizers described as “top experts in the field” who selected the final attendees. Yet, strikingly, several proposals recommended by those experts as strong candidates involved the mass deployment of multimedia mobile apps requiring the latest-generation smartphones and tablets with high-end GPUs and rock solid 4G bandwidth into areas of rural Africa where feature phones are the norm, robust 4G is nowhere to be found, phones are charged via solar or generator units and data charges make the idea of volunteers consuming gigabytes of mobile data per person entirely outside the realm of possibility.

When I provided feedback that organizations I work with on the ground in the proposed deployment areas had made it clear to me that finding such latest-generation devices with unlimited stable 4G bandwidth was exceedingly rare to nonexistent, my concerns were dismissed because top experts convened by the US Government believed this was not a problem. Indeed, there seemed to be a general unfamiliarity with actual ground conditions in these areas, even among those who claimed to have deployed to the areas in question, though at least one later conceded that he had worked in a freshly constructed state-of-the-art government-operated facility that “may not have been entirely reflective of local conditions.”

One of the challenges when it comes to innovation to government innovation, especially innovation focused on development, is the shocking lack of real world understanding of ground conditions and local cultural beliefs, narratives and views across the world. One very senior US Government policymaker in the room pushed back strongly on the concept of better incorporation of socio-cultural insight into government development activities. Having been personally involved in some of the highest-profile US Government development projects in Africa over the last several years, she argued that the government had an absolutely perfect track record of understanding local cultures and narratives, had never made a mistake and that there was simply nothing the government could learn or do better regarding socio-cultural issues on the continent. When I pointed to the many US Government research programs currently underway that are focused on generating better socio-cultural data specifically to improve limitations of US Government knowledge, she dismissed these as unnecessary efforts, once again reiterating her belief that the US Government had perfect knowledge and understanding of all socio-cultural issues worldwide and that in her view the government’s execution was similarly flawless in which not a single related US Government assistance or engagement program has ever been marred by even the slightest cultural issues.

This senior policymaker’s view that the US Government had an absolutely flawless record stands at exceedingly sharp odds with the reports of citizens and non-governmental organizations on the ground that have interacted first-hand with those government programs. Whether this reflects that ground conditions are simply not being relayed up to policymakers or whether policymakers are ignoring the data being provided to them, at the very least it suggests a strong disconnect between data reflecting the reality on the ground and the polar opposite understanding of those ground conditions held by the policymakers directing US Government efforts there.

This is perhaps the greatest obstacle to infusing greater innovation into government – the data reaching policymakers is often so detached from the reality of the issues they are trying to solve that it is difficult to adopt data-driven policymaking to meaningfully change conditions. Even when data reflective of reality does reach policymakers, if it disagrees with that policymaker’s personal views, it is the data that is all-too-often discarded. Part of this is simple human nature: government officials become personally invested in their past decisions and new and disruptive innovations that might cast doubt on the wisdom of those past decisions are viewed as a personal threat to their careers.

Indeed, it was surprising that the judges panel consisted almost exclusively of US Government employees with relatively little combined experience deployed in the field in hands-on direct experience in the focal area. I asked why they had not brought in outside judges from the organizations actually working on the ground that are in a far better hands-on position to say what they actually need and to evaluate solutions from the standpoint of a field agent actually deploying that solution. The answer was that they felt government employees would be in a better position to understand what would be the best solution for those in the field.

That response, that government employees know better than those actually in the field deploying solutions and working directly with affected communities seems to be a common thread in my three years as a data scientist here in DC. It reflects that no matter how hard you try to be open minded and think outside the box, human nature means you will still carry with you your own biases and beliefs of what works and doesn’t work. Indeed, for this very reason DARPA limits most of its employees to stints of just 4-5 years so there is constant turnover and program officers do not become jaded and bogged down with beliefs about what doesn’t work or what is the “best” approach.

One of the interesting things comparing government innovation to Silicon Valley innovation is that in government, attempted innovation is all-too-often driven by senior individuals so high up in the bureaucracy that they have lost touch with the reality on the ground and order a particular solution based on their own beliefs about what would work and this solution is then deployed and ordered to be used. The lack of robust external review of most innovation programs means there are few checks and balances to constrain or force course corrections upon poorly conceived or executed programs.

In stark contrast, Silicon Valley is based on the customer model – ideas are formed and developed into products, released and then continually refined and course corrected based on feedback from customers. If a product is so detached from reality that it doesn’t address the need its creators think it does, customers won’t use it and the product will fail. It is that simple.

Perhaps the most important lesson that the US Government has failed to learn is that innovation rarely comes in the form of top-down orders from executive suites. Innovation more often bubbles up from those in the trenches or outside sources interacting closely with them. It comes from understanding what precisely the question is to be solved and the specific conditions a solution must function in. Recommending the creation of a mobile app that requires a latest generation smartphone, advanced GPU capability and robust 4G network connectivity supporting gigabytes of data bandwidth per month might be a perfectly acceptable solution to be deployed in downtown Manhattan. Deploying the same app to remote villages in Guinea poses far greater challenges. That’s not to say it cannot be done, but rather that deploying it to those areas requires providing the necessary surrounding infrastructure in a long-term sustainable fashion. In short, innovation requires bringing in those from outside the field who don’t know what can’t be done and allowing them to inject new ideas and approaches, while incorporating the feedback of those actually in the trenches who are in the best position to articulate the challenges they face and their most immediate needs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Estonian government has become an international model for the power of innovation in government, much of it coming from effective ground-up collaborations with the private sector. At the end of the day, perhaps the US Government could take a hint from the Estonian Government and be more innovative about it how seeks innovative solutions.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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