White House Office of American Innovation not interested in making magic, but building culture

A federal agency is not a J.C. Penney store, but when it comes to improving operations, they’re more similar than you’d think.

That’s according to Matt Lira, the special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives, under the White House’s Office of American Innovation.

Speaking at the June 27 NextGov event “Boosting Government Efficiency,” Lira said operational improvement is like taking over a retail store, and firing the manager every few years because the store doesn’t perform well. At a certain point you realize it’s not just the manager that’s the problem, it’s the operating manual that needs an overhaul.

“The incentives and structures that are determining the behaviors by civil servants, by government agencies, and by the vendor community, if they were more properly aligned around the goals that we’re trying to achieve, this continual technological improvement …. these are all good actors in this community and you’ll see continually improving results for the citizen,” Lira said during the Washington event.

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The office was created to improve agencies’ back-office and mission-critical processes, and Lira as an example of an area for improvement, offered the “continual horror stories” at VA. While the department is largely comprised of “really great people” working in and around the agency, there are bad apples in the mix.

“So incentivizing the wrong behaviors, the structure itself is dictating the results we’re seeing,” Lira said.

Lira issued a call for help from both agency representatives and industry leaders. The environment is ripe for improvement, such as the bipartisan consensus to improve the operational side of the government, Lira said, and recent meetings with technology executives and the creation of the American Technology Council (ATC).

“We realize that it’s not going to be something that is concluded in the context of even a single administration,” Lira continued. “We want to work with you, and with the broader community to help deliver those outcomes. We realize that we’re not the first to try to tackle this problem, we’ve talked with a lot of our predecessors. They’ve made points of progress, we want to build on that progress, but also if we are able to achieve this policy consensus, that will be a far more powerful thing than any one achievement we can do alone.”

Lira said a meeting last week with technology executives was largely spent talking about how to improve the operational size of the federal government, and how to improve things like hiring, contracting and procurement.

“We want to bring people together so we can work on these problems, and hopefully imbue a culture that will endure,” Lira said. “I’ve said this before, but I think it’s still pertinent. If we had the ability to wave a magic wand and instantly deliver a modernized federal government — which of course we don’t, but if we did, within six months we would still have to modernize again, because technology is continually changing. So the challenge is not just to deliver sort of a new, shiny object or even a new infrastructure [or]  structural tool, the challenge is to build a culture and organizational structure that is continually updated that gives that technological change on an ongoing basis.”

Hiring the right people

Some agencies are already learning lessons as they build that culture around technological change and improved operations.

During a panel discussion on data analytics, Kelly Tshibaka, chief data officer for the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, said agencies not only need data for operations, but also the tools to use it, the right people who know how to use those tools, and executive buy-in.

“You’re not going to go anywhere if you don’t have an executive sponsor,” Tshibaka said. “We can be the cheerleaders and champions once that authority’s delegated and there’s already buy-in, but to get the ball rolling … somebody who has the ability to pull resources from other places … and say ‘I actually want to invest us in data analytics,’ and nobody can complain and protect about it.”

Tshibaka said data tools won’t be perfect, but they will work, so it is also important to have people who know how to work with those tools, and understand that it’s not only about collecting the data, but knowing the how and why of that collection.

But finding the right people can be tricky, Tshibaka said.

“A lot of our agencies aren’t hiring these people right now, because we’re hiring the people we’ve always hired for the mission,” Tshibaka said. “In our case we’re hiring auditors and investigators, we’re not hiring what we would call data scientists, data analysts or business analysts with data analytics background.”

That can be tricky for agencies like the Government Accountability Office, said Rebecca Shea, audit director for the Forensic Audits and Investigative Service.

“We have to have the skills in house, because we cannot contract for the work that we do,” Shea said. “About 86 percent of our budget is focused on payroll. Our biggest issue is making sure that we get the right people in the door, and then we keep those people in the door, and we keep maintaining their skills. So a lot of what we do is focused on the people side.”

Avi Bender, director of the National Technical Information Service, agreed with Tshibaka that agencies need a core staff of data scientists and change agents, though it can be difficult to balance talent while also trying to monitor and provide oversight in keeping up with the private sector. That’s why there needs to be a shakeup, Bender said.

“It’s not just the tools, we need to have some disruptive business models to turn things upside down a little bit,” Bender said. “We’re doing things the same way over and over again, because we’re in this frame, and we try to operate within that, and innovate what I would call on the margins. Why don’t we just break this frame and really think a bit differently?’