Over the summer, we met with a bi-partisan group of more than 50 leaders spanning academia, philanthropy, government, and industry, and asked: How should the presidential transition team structure innovation in the next administration? In particular, how might we move social innovation policy from pilot programs and one-off experiments toward an embedded practice in government? Today, in the wake of the US presidential election, no one in the social innovation community really knows what the future of innovation—including tech-enabled innovation—should or will be.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, civic technologists and social innovation leaders are divided about where to go. Given the potential shifts in approaches and policies that lie ahead under a very ideologically different administration, do they stay and serve in government, or is it time to organize and align from the outside? With the future so unclear, what are the priorities for continuing to grow and identify new policy solutions? While it’s too early to offer any prescriptive approaches, we see a few possible paths forward.
Engaging the Private and Social Sectors
Across all levels of government, new partnership models that bridge the public and private sectors and that re-engage citizens in policy decision-making can make governance both more effective and efficient. Integrating such innovative approaches—including public-private partnerships, participatory policy design, outcomes funding, and evidence-based policy—into the foundation of the federal government could unlock new opportunities within the social sector to increase its impact.
But even if the presidential transition team led this effort, it couldn’t do it alone. We need all sectors to embed these approaches in their work and expand on them. Cities across the United States are leading the way, launching new innovation units, utilizing public-private partnerships, and focusing on improved civic engagement—not only in spite of, but, in many ways, because of restrictive budgets. The Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, for example, serves as an idea incubator working internally across the city and serving as a bridge to engage different constituencies that better reflect the city’s diverse makeup. Engaging a wide range of people—communities across the country, not just those in coastal cities—can help equip government to develop better policy.
Building on Past Success
New innovation labs, centers, leadership positions, and offices emerged across the federal government during the Obama Administration. These included labs and new offices within the Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, and the White House; digital service teams in various federal agencies; and new positions such as White House Chief Data Scientist (2015), Federal Chief Information Office (2009), and US Chief Technology Officer (2009). The previous Bush Administration also introduced innovations, including expanded, evidence-based decision-making structures in government that paved the way for important evidence-based policy developments like the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission, which launched in 2016.
The next administration could build on these foundations. Leading a convergence of these various initiatives and positions across government could streamline efforts while making it clear that creativity, flexibility, and efficiency are essential to effective governance.
How might this work? Take the problem of redundancy and inefficiency within government. What if we applied the tools and methods of innovation to create more effective managerial structures? A recent Harvard Business Review article, for example, recommended that companies teach employees to challenge invisible orthodoxies, and leverage embedded competencies and assets. Were the federal government to encourage these skills, it could empower existing personnel to rework current practices and potentially lead to more adaptive, responsive, and efficient policies. The capacity is there, and leaders across government and other sectors could help establish the framework and resources needed to enable those innovators.
Fostering Frugal Innovation in the White House
Marcus Peacock, who served as associate director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency in the George W. Bush Administration, has suggested that governments foster “frugal innovation,” which “happens when an individual with a flexible mindset and never-say-die commitment to finding a solution is faced with significantly limited resources.” Peacock explains that frugal innovation is a mindset, rather than a process or technology, and writes, “Research on innovation indicates that if budget cuts are to help, rather than harm, agency performance, federal managers can use scarcity as a stimulus for lasting change. That means eschewing arbitrary, across-the-board, and temporary cost-reduction measures and, instead, committing to look for long-term positive changes.”
Given that OMB is the managerial hub for the White House, and with Peacock’s insight in mind, it is worth considering its potential to lead this new era of innovation. While some believe the management side of OMB is the locus of government compliance, we think that—given the right authority and structural supports—it could be an effective innovation leader. Empowering OMB management to administer an innovation agenda would enable OMB to utilize its managerial and budgetary pull to coordinate innovation across the federal government. There are various approaches to structuring this within policy.
Embracing a Culture that Enables Risk
Building innovation into the fabric of the federal government means enabling personnel to “fail forward” and take risks, while simultaneously providing the structural air cover to enable and incentivize experimentation, and creating avenues for policy to remain agile to future change.
Government is, in many ways, risk averse—and for good reason. Bureaucracy exists to minimize the risk to taxpayers as public officials work on their behalf. Within such a procedurally “secured” environment, we need to make room for experimentation and creativity. Government can be a place of “big ideas,” but without space or the right incentives to take risks, and without the protection of senior leadership to allow trial and error, we will be stuck with outdated practices.
To achieve social impact at scale, policymakers in the next administration need to think about, fund, and evaluate social policies and programs in new ways. The impending shift in governance demands cross-sector engagement and systemic solutions. The Obama Administration has made a lot of progress, but there is a lot of fear and concern that these mission-critical innovations will evaporate. We hope to see increased support for innovation from philanthropic, academic, and private sector institutions, and greater experimentation in outcomes-driven policy and civic engagement within government itself.