For the last century, the American defense industry has arguably been one of the most innovative segments in the world. But when it comes to information technology innovation, there is a perception that this level of dominance does not keep pace with the commercial sector inside and outside the US Many expect government agencies to create and embrace a culture of innovation and environment like a Silicon Valley startup , but I believe the reality is that this doesn’t always—and shouldn’t—translate.
Driving innovation across the government is multifaceted and complex, and while there are many commercial best practices, technology advances, and strategies, these are not always applicable or feasible given how the various government agencies build, deliver, and maintain software.
There are many different types of innovation, but sometimes I think we forget they all share one common goal: to create something new and better than what came before. Whether it’s a new technology, a new business model, or a new way of doing things, innovation is about making improvements and driving progress.
It helps to define innovation in the US government as balanced innovation. Balanced innovation is a process of creating change by developing and implementing new ideas while maintaining a focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of legacy processes and products. In order to achieve this across the government, agencies are focused on both short-term results and long-term outcomes, as well as maintaining a balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches. The goal of balanced innovation is to help the government keep pace with the rapidly changing world around it, while still ensuring the mission of each agency remains the highest priority.
Balanced innovation in the government could look like a more even distribution of resources between different agencies and departments; a focus on collaborative efforts between agencies and as well as cross-agency initiatives; an increase in the use of data and analytics to drive decision-making; or a greater emphasis on customer experience. It could even be a complete overhaul of a network or software. The point is that the culture, mindset, and mission of the government aren’t comparable to the private sector, so it can be ill-advised to hold agencies to the same standards of innovation.
DIVIDED BY DIFFERENT MOTIVATIONS
To try and make long-standing organizations within the government “look” like a Silicon Valley startup without acknowledging the existing culture is typically an exercise in futility. There’s a fundamental divide between software development companies and organizations—like the government—whose primary business is not selling software.
This divide can be traced back to different motivations. Software development companies are motivated by profit; they need to sell their software in order to stay in business. Organizations like the government, on the other hand, are motivated by mission accomplishment; they use software internally to help them achieve their goals. For software companies and a lot of private enterprises, constant experimentation is the norm to stay relevant and in tune with users and ahead of their competitors. That’s just not the case nor is it feasible for government agencies.
I have seen a lot of my peers become disillusioned with the government due to what they perceive as bureaucracy or resistance to change when they suggest new technology or wonder why their organization is utilizing older solutions. For anyone who has worked at a Fortune 500 company, you also know these attributes are not unique to the government—red tape, delays, and decision fatigue are rampant in every industry.
But for government agencies, it is a little more heightened because technology just isn’t their core mission. Although increasingly informed and supported by technology, software is a means to an end, not the end in itself. This can cause dissonance when technologists feel the ultimate mission is the software, but that is rarely the case. Instead, the focus should be on how the systems support the end mission and how to avoid technology decisions that are misaligned or don’t advance the mission.
SUCCESSFULLY LEADING INNOVATION
I’ve found that the most successful technology leaders within the government all have one thing in common: They have a deep awareness that the “customers” of government agencies are incredibly unique, and to serve them, they leverage balanced innovation practices. Here’s what that can look like:
- Understand that the services agencies offer are an enabler for a larger mission and actively partner with their functional stakeholders
- Take time to build collaborative relationships and understand the challenges of each agency’s stakeholders, understand their domain, and learn to speak their language
- Remember that technology’s role is solely the supporting cast—it’s never the star of the show
- Focus on pragmatic solutions and let them mission needs drive the technological solution
- Recognizing that return on investment has to be considered even in non-commercial settings, especially with government agencies
When done correctly, a balanced approach to innovation can result in agencies that successfully meet mission-critical goals, are able to continue tackling emerging challenges, and are prepared to handle whatever the future brings.
VP of Solutions Development at TIAG, an innovative tech company delivering strategic and transformational commercial and defense solutions.