Directions for a New Path to Government Innovation

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

“The health of American democracy depends in part on marshaling the science and practice of innovation to bolster faith in the legitimacy of government by improving its effectiveness.” Those are some of the opening words from a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)

ITIF is an independent, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized as one of the world’s leading science and technology think tanks, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress.

In Enabling Customer-Driven Innovation in the Federal Government, ITIF proposes a detailed set of recommendations for the White House Office of American Innovation to transform the enterprise of government by applying customer-driven innovations to federal processes, services, and organizational models.

“The Trump administration has created the Office of American Innovation to help the federal government ‘run like a great American company.’ We applaud that goal. It won’t be easy—but it can be done,” says ITIF President Robert D. Atkinson, the report’s lead author, in a written statement. “It will require systemic changes across the federal enterprise to inject the philosophy and practice of customer-driven innovation into the core functioning of government.”

Atkinson notes that improving the performance of government has been a perennial topic for 60 years, but technology make this goal very different than earlier forays into innovation. No doubt, organizations can use technology to transform and become more flexible, but this is hard for big companies and even more so in the federal enterprise. What’s more, new technology isn’t the whole story. The report points out that real improvement to government efficiency and effectiveness will come from “adopting customer-driven innovation to improve all government processes, services, and organizational models.”

Toward this end, ITIF proposes actionable recommendations in six key areas: institutional models; approach and culture; resources, tools, and best practices; metrics and incentives; financing; oversight and review; and procurement. Here’s a brief list of suggestions for each area:


Institutional Models

  • Appoint a Chief Innovation Officer in the White House.
  • Require agencies to incorporate an innovation component in all strategic plans.
  • Establish innovation “skunk works.”
  • Expand the presidential innovation fellows program.
  • Create an innovation ideas panel within the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Temporarily exempt some federal agencies from stifling rules.

Approach and Culture

  • Inculcate design thinking and innovation practices within agencies.
  • Identify 20 to 50 core practices to be transformed through innovation.
  • Create an expectation for innovation, especially trials, tests, and pilot programs.

Resources, Tools, and Best Practices

  • Document innovation success stories.
  • Support creation of innovation tool kits.
  • Train support functions how to say yes to innovation.
  • Establish a bottom-up innovation tool for federal employees.
  • Establish internal cultures for innovation.
  • Enable and encourage federal agencies to talk to “customers.”

Metrics and Incentives

  • Make “innovating” an explicit performance expectation for senior officials.
  • Establish a federal innovation awards program to recognize innovators.
  • Require more agencies to enroll in “Yelp for Government.”
  • Rank agency functions in terms of innovation.


  • Allow agencies to divert a small share of their budgets to innovation projects.
  • Allow more shared savings partnerships.

Oversight and Review

  • Undertake formal efforts to better understand innovation processes and “good” risk taking.
  • Call out agencies for not innovating.
  • Refrain from penalizing failed efforts at innovation.
  • Require innovation to be an explicit criterion in procurement processes.
  • Ensure pre-award contract specifications are broad enough to enable innovative solutions to be offered.
  • Allow contractors to innovate post-award.
  • Enable more private companies to provide federal services.
  • Establish government “platforms” for vendors to compare innovation and performance metrics. 

“When it comes to the federal government, it’s as if we are living in a 20th century analogue world wrapped in bureaucracy, paper, and delay,” adds Atkinson. “Productivity growth is likely anemic; service quality is often frustratingly slow and often not fully responsive; and the quality of technology lags the private sector. Whatever you think about the appropriate size and role of government, everyone should be able to agree that government should be as productive and effective as possible.”
Read the full report for details on each recommendation.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected] 

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