Co-Founder, Facilitator, Product Manager, Developer/Coder
Defining a shared language for public sector innovation and an inclusive community to build a 21st century workforce
The federal government lags far behind the private sector in adoption of 21st century practices, and the hurdles to innovation are large and high. In October 2015, the White House’s Strategy for American Innovation identified this challenge:
“A growing number of Federal employees are using new approaches to solve problems, improve the core processes of government, and foster innovation. However, adoption of these approaches is still low relative to their potential. Many Federal employees do not know that these approaches exist or lack the support needed to use them effectively.”
Those working in government to implement and advocate for public sector innovation within the federal government are experienced in research, networking, “bureaucracy hacking”, and figuring out how to get things done with limited resources. We set out to explore how to build products and services to meet the needs of public servants and help achieve the goal of building a 21st-century government.
Over three years we launched a large-scale research effort and prototyped experiences to discover how to effectively serve the many talented federal employees scattered across many agencies who have motivation and potential to cause change. This includes innovation lab leaders and participants, people in fellowship programs, and people anywhere else in the federal government who implement effective new approaches.
We investigated these core questions:
What resources or services do our target audiences need to support their work in changing the status quo?
What gaps do they see in the available resources or services?
What are the current ways they look for the kinds of information the product or services would support?
What barriers stop them from using innovative approaches, including barriers to finding key resources?
How Might We Question?
Going into the research we asked ourselves:
How might we equip and motivate the existing federal government workforce to affect positive, 21st century change within their organizations?
Products and Services
As the research progressed, we co-created resources in the form of products and services, which resulted in creating: a shared language (content), a community of practice (community), and professional development opportunities (course). Each one of those are described below.
Innovation Playbook, Toolkit and Case Studies: A shared language
Innovating in the public sector requires a new kind of mission-oriented thinking and perspective. The Presidential Innovation Fellows brings that entrepreneurial expertise into government to solve the nation’s biggest challenges, but it must spread and scale its impact to build a 21st century government.
We conducted two foundational research sprints to determine the direction we should take, and completed nearly 600 pages of research to understand not only how public sector innovation is defined, but applied in the federal government. We set out to develop a useful web resource combined with community and human interaction, which would grow and iterate over time, with the following goals to:
Inform people inside and outside of government of the kinds of innovation/change happening in government
Educate people in government about how they can innovate and provide a roadmap to innovation
Connect others across the siloes of government to envision what a better government means for them in the context of their work
More than 200 volunteers across government were garnered through the platform Open Opportunities to build, write, design, and launch an open source, interactive website (formerly housed on Innovation.gov). On that site is an Innovation Playbook, Toolkit, and Case Studies. The Innovation Playbook defines and provides six principles of public sector innovation. The Toolkit showcases 90 pages of HOW innovation is applied across government, in 15 different content areas in four verticals:
Building a 21st Century Culture and Workforce
Improving Government Services Delivery
Solving Complex Problems
Working with Innovators
And finally the Case Studies show three different Innovation Labs that have successfully spurred culture change within their organizations.
The Better Government Movement: A Community
Our research showed that those leading change within their organizations need others with whom they can learn from and share in their challenges and successes. It isn’t enough or wise to go it alone--there must be allies and confidants along the way. What these innovative people are doing in government are not simply “innovating.” They are making the government a better place, and need to be surrounded by others who are doing the same, which needs to scale the impact. Therefore, we formed The Better Government Movement (BGM).
We created this movement on the proven concept that culture change requires a movement and not a mandate, and that we are stronger together than alone. We:
Build 21st century, delivery-driven government.
Create an inclusive space where public servants can grow their creative capacity and learn new tools to jumpstart innovation to solve government-wide problems and affect positive change within their organizations.
Practice what we preach and preach what we practice.
This includes sharing stories within our open community of innovators to shape a better understanding of problems and build custom, agile solutions. We share stories of when we fail, experience small and big wins, and of how to work across the government.
The Better Government Bootcamp: Getting public servants primed for leading 21st century change
Lastly, our research also showed that there was a lack of affordable professional development opportunities and also ability for public servants to take extended time off to pursue training that are focused on 21st century skills. Public servants wanted to upskill themselves, but didn’t have the time or budget as well as a pathway for these skills to take shape.
That’s why we created the Better Government Bootcamp (formerly the Design Challenge), to pair proven modern methods with practical application over a period of time to yield both principles and practice. Between March and June 2018, 40 public servants from 34 agencies completed the Bootcamp’s first cohort which consisted of 15 weeks of training and applying eight different 21st century methods in a safe space to tackle three government-wide problems.
Human-Centered Design, Lean Startup, and Agile are the core elements of this training program, with specific masterclasses on prototyping/Minimum Viable Product, change and transformation, storytelling, and finally pitching. We partnered with Design Thinking DC to take their existing work and translate it for the federal government.
Designed as an extended bootcamp experience, the chosen first cohort were divided up into seven teams and learned eight methodologies in an experiential learning environment while applying the skills immediately through diving into three problem sets and “how might we?” questions. They were guided by a team of five leaders and their own teams of “sherpas” to mentor them through the process of innovation: 3 subject-matter Sherpas, 3 Innovation Sherpas, and nearly a dozen other sherpas as needed.
In all, the students attended seven masterclasses with 14 instructors from the community and completed 12 assignments which amounted to more than 120 hours of teamwork. At the end of their journey, each of teams competed in a pitch day to showcase their work in front of a panel of judges.
Other External activities
The Better Government Movement has partnerships across public, nonprofit, and private sectors including academia. Since its inception, we convened more than 2,000 people from 112 agencies at its events, as well as:
Design Thinking DC
University of Virginia Darden School of Business
The Partnership for Public Service
The Schmidt Foundation
The Moore Foundation
Code for America
Agency partners from across government
Private sector start-up founders
21st-Century Government Leadership Training
A key part of building a better government involves setting the right leadership and vision (see Figure 2 to the right). While the Better Government Bootcamp helps to create and foster change agents, we sought to build out the next generation of government leaders for change.
Our first iteration of The 21st Century Government Leadership Program was launched in October 2018 for GS-14 and GS-15s and other aspiring leaders to teach them learn tools to better frame the problems you are trying to solve; strategies for creating a participatory culture; methods to apply policy, operations, employee engagement, and program design; and processes to more rapidly and flexibly hire and procure for pressing needs.
The training is an outgrowth of the research done through Innovation Toolkit, and is in partnership with our friends at The Partnership for Public Service, the American Institutes for Research and the Policy Design Lab with funding from the Schmidt Family Foundation.
Co-Founded Partnership for Public Service Innovation Council
As our project progressed, we knew we needed to collaborate and expand our reach across government. For this, we partnered with the Partnership for Public Service to create a nonpartisan Federal Innovation Council.
In establishing the Federal Innovation Council, we sought to develop a comprehensive approach to promoting and enabling innovation across the federal government, helping agencies more effectively solve problems and deliver services.
Council members share expertise and identify opportunities to collaborate to enable innovation in government. They will also help the Partnership design and execute activities aiming to increase awareness of and reduce barriers to innovation, resulting in the improved ability of federal agencies to design, test, and deliver new approaches and solutions.
Through this Movement, innovators across government have a shared language, can link to one another and collaborate, embracing and promoting innovation even if their individual department, group, or agency may not be ready for or supportive of the concept. By working across government, ideas and skills can germinate freely, absent of the localized constraints that inhibit lasting innovation progress in government. So far, the Movement has:
Amassed a community of 5,000 members both inside and outside of government
Wrote content for and launched Innovation.gov (in Beta)
Convened more than 2,000 people from 112 agencies in nearly 100 co-creation workshops and two design-a-thons
Built content, tools, and resources nearly 200 active volunteers that built the Movement
One Movement, Four Pillars:
User Experience Research
Co-created six principles and 15 reports (600 pages) in four verticals
Better Government Bootcamp Statistics
3 Cross-Agency Priority Goals
> 120 Hours of Teamwork
7 Masterclasses with 14 Instructors
3 CAP Goal Sherpas
3 Innovation Sherpas
10 Ad Hoc Sherpas
5 Design Challenge Leadership
October 2015: The Strategy for American Innovation is released, which states that “The Administration is creating an Innovation Toolkit to facilitate the broader adoption and awareness of a core set of innovative approaches. The Innovation Toolkit will consist of high-quality online resources that explain how and why these approaches can yield important results for the American people.”
December 2015: The General Services Administration funded a research project through its initiative called “The Great Pitch”
Spring 2016: 18F Discovery Sprint, led by Amy Wilson and Alan Brouilette, is created
Spring-Summer 2016: Teams in Fellows in Innovation, a coalition of fellows across the executive branch of the federal government, start foundational research
Summer--January 20, 2017: Nearly 600 pages of research is completed through a cadre of writers at the General Services Administration, the Executive Office of the President, and the Policy Design Lab
Fall 2016: Amy Wilson, Presidential Innovation Fellow joins full time to lead the design and creation of products and services to spur innovation in government
December 2016: First prototype of the Innovation Toolkit is created
2017: Launched Innovation.gov Alpha and Founded the Better Government Movement
Convened more than 1,000 people from 89 agencies through 15 co-creation workshops and two design-a-thons
Built the movement: 120 active participants
Co-created six plays/principles and 15 reports in four verticals
Created a Community of Practice to learn, share, and build
Built a network of mentors, coaches, facilitators to catalyze change
January 2018: Innovation.gov Beta launches with the Better Government Playbook, Toolkit, Case Studies, and Join Page
March 2018: The Better Government Bootcamp (formerly Design Challenge) launches with 40 public servants from 34 agencies to learn how to make positive change happen within their organizations
December 2018: The Better Government Movement grows to more than 4,900 members, 2,000 attendees of sessions, and 200 active volunteers since inception