How to make innovation a (federal) way of life

The source of the “give a man a fish” proverb is lost in time, but whoever said it was on to something. Giving someone a fish may alleviate his hunger for the moment. But as a solution to hunger, handing out fish daily lacks scalability. Widespread skill at angling —that’s scale.

Dealing with problems at scale —that presents an essential challenge for governments at all levels.  Across Washington yesterday, you could hear the message that innovative thinking fueled by the right data can produce scalable solutions. Already has, in fact.

The White House, in an event headlined with the metaphorically-mixed words, “Unleashing the power of open data to build stronger ladders of opportunity for all Americans,” gave a fresh push to its Opportunity Project. President Obama said programmers had created 29 “digital tools” — applications, actually — using federal and other data sets.

Some exhibit more ambition than others. I typed my address into an application called Opportunity Score. I found that the available jobs in public administration, professional and scientific services, and accommodation and food services have a walk-to rating of 43 percent. Heck, I knew that. From my subdivision you can’t even walk for a quart of milk, at least not if you want it to stay cold until you get home.

Many of the projects — they’re now housed at a special Census Bureau web site — are still in development. Aggregated by title, they show some bias to the current administration’s policy views on transportation (cars are bad) or housing policy (predominant make-up is evidence of bias). Some of the applications are not free and you can only sign up for trials before having to pay. Lots of them look downright interesting, worth checking out if you don’t mind creating account after account, user name after user name, password after password.

Despite the apparent immaturity of implementation so far, that idea — using publicly available data sets in applications to help people with problems — remains an enchanting one for a large group of academics, data geeks, consultancy gurus and mid-level policy people in the government. They’re correct. Now this group — in the form of advice for the forthcoming new administration — thinks the efforts across government to use this form of innovation should have a more regularized, institutional life.

That advice takes the form of The Architecture of Innovation  published by the McCourt School of Public Policy and the Beeck Center for social impact and innovation, both at Georgetown U.  (The title is borrowed from at least two earlier works, a lecture by Lawrence Lessig of Stanford in 2002 and one by Josh Lerner of Harvard in 2012.)

Co-author Hollie Russon Gilman describes the report as pointing the government away from the “what” of innovation to the “how.” It  lays out a long list of  recommendation from re-organizing the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to more strongly emphasize the “M,” to having a deputy chief of staff dedicated to innovation in the oval office. It’s got ideas for innovation oversight, flexible hiring, even procurement reforms. Not totally surprising, given the 50 federal policy veterans interviewed for The Architecture of Innovation.

The report heavily cites cities, many of which have managed to make innovation a way of life. At the report rollout, the District’s chief data officer, Archana Vermulapalli, said if the program owners aren’t part of it, innovation ideas can become stuck on islands of “cool kids;” cool maybe, but a step away from the daily realities of mission execution.

Architecture is a good read. I join the authors in hoping someone somewhere in the Trump and Clinton transition teams spend an hour seeing what it says.

Use of data-driven applications and program analysis as the raw material for innovation forms the background for the report. As the University of Maryland’s Don Kettl put it, “Data isn’t what we do, it’s the language we do it with.”  He underscored the report’s main contention by saying if innovation policies and practices aren’t institutionalized, they could become just another fatigue-inducing layer of reform.