Five Ways to Innovate Inside Government Agencies

During a recent Lean Startup Conference, Kara DeFrias moderated a panel with Marina Martin, Vivian Graubard, Eduardo Ortiz, and Tiffani Ashley Bell on what the private sector can learn from government.

Most entrepreneurs may never work directly with a government agency, but for a select few, insights on how to manage that relationship are invaluable. Kara DeFrias, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow in the Obama White House, and her panel, offered big takeaways for entrepreneurs to glean how government agencies function. These lessons could apply to any number of business settings, from corporate environments to the startup space, and especially to federal and state personnel who want to work in smarter ways.

1. Work with existing processes before you change them.

Vivian, co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs) who served in the Obama White House, said her group realized that they had to put aside their desire to go in and fix every problem in favor of first identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and find the right people to fill any gaps.

One of the first gaps they discovered was they needed “an experienced, seasoned researcher,” which wound up being Kara’s role.

Marina, also a part of the PIFs program, eventually made her way to the VA (Veterans Affairs) as the Chief Technology Officer. She, too, found that her team couldn’t just rush in and hire whomever they liked, but that they had to “build a team that the VA viewed as an integral part of itself and that people viewed as an additional office, not a separate one.”

Once they established themselves, Marina explained, they had to be patient and first use the agency’s tried and true processes of hiring new people in order to show the VA that these old processes didn’t work. “That was the best argument in government to make somebody say ‘Oh, okay, now we’ve got to try a new way of hiring,’” she explained.

It took her two years before they made their first hire because she wanted to get it right. “Going step by step we were able to build a team that was really sustainable and done in the right way.”

Vivian gave Marina kudos for her work saying that “Marina really took the time to understand what the lasting structures would be [in the VA] and build the team around that.”

2. Look for creative solutions to tough problems.

Tiffani’s work isn’t just specifically for the government. She’s also the founder and executive director of The Human Utility, which helps people pay their water bills who can’t afford to, and who, in some cases, have had their water shut off already. In a recent situation, she had a tough time getting the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to see them as a legitimate group because they’d also engaged in some protests. But once The Human Utility was able to raise funds to pay $100,000 worth of bills one year through an ingenious hack—giving donors the account numbers of people who needed their bills paid and having the donors pay them as though they were the account holders—they proved their seriousness.

What Tiffani took away from this work is that “everybody [has the] ability to make a difference just through tech by clicking a button. You probably already have your debit card saved in your browser.” She suggests that making an impact is as simple as making a donation.

3. Identify all your users before you begin.

Eduardo, who was Creative Director at U.S. Digital Service, worked with the Department of Homeland Security to refine and revise the application for naturalization.

What he brought to that process was “being able to actually identify all of our stakeholders, all of the people that had to use the system, and everyone that was impacted by any change that we made.”

Because in order to make this form more user-friendly, they had to really consider who would be filling it out and whether each question would have a positive or negative impact on each person, many of whom were non-native English speakers.

He was keenly aware that it would be a mistake “to deploy…a specific technology [if] you never even decided to look at the people that are going to be using it.”

With careful consideration they were able to make the form “be more human friendly,” Eduardo explained, impacting “upwards of 700,000 people per year between 2010 and 2014.”

4. Find kindred spirits. Don’t be a hero.

Entrepreneurs and innovators coming into government often have a desire to make quick fixes and move at the speed of Silicon Valley, which is not unlike a new manager or leader coming to an existing company. Vivian pointed out, however, that there is probably already somebody within the organization or agency “who has been wanting to do this work for a very long time. They show up and they go to work every day and they ask themselves ‘How am I going to make life better for immigrants, for veterans, for students who are paying off loans, for people who need access to healthcare…”

Vivian’s strategy was to find those people and ask them what she could do to make their dreams come true. “That’s the best way to get in at the right level and make sure that you have a willing partner who wants to break the bureaucracy down with you.”

Marina echoed this, saying it’s never a good idea to come into a new situation and try to play the hero who’s going to change everything for your idea of what’s better. “If I walked up to you tomorrow and said ‘I want you to look at everything in your job description and do the opposite of it’…you wouldn’t do it,” she said.

Eduardo agreed, adding, “The concept of an expert that can go into government and solve everything is a complete fallacy.”

Instead, look for people with common interests and purpose, and strive to work together for greater accomplishments.

5. Get everyone involved early.

One of Vivian’s biggest takeaways from her time working within the White House was that engineers, designers, and product managers should be involved in any major project from the beginning, even in its most nascent forms. She gives the example of healthcare, suggesting that Aneesh Chopra, Obama’s pick for CTO, should have been part of the healthcare discussion to help design the process.

And in response to an audience question about what people can do who want to solve big problems, Vivian replied with what might be a unifying point for the whole group, “There are so many ways to get involved…Look around at what problems you hope to solve in your own community, and then figure out which resources you can bring to bear to get that done.”

Thank you to Jordan Rosenfeld for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help. Our annual flagship conference is around the corner on October 23-25 in San Francisco. We look forward to seeing you there.



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