Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Now the Real Innovation Begins

The Obama administration unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and no where is that more apparent than in the web world. My former colleagues are finally emerging as heroes of innovation, freed from obscurity by fellow innovators in and outside of government. It’s been gratifying to watch people like famed web pioneer Craig Newmark discover and champion the web manager community…a community that has labored behind the scenes for so many years, trying to turn a federal government that considered itself “wholesale - not retail” into a citizen-centered services provider. The spirit of innovation has permeated camps and conferences and blogs and email discussions and social networking spaces for the past 6 months; and I don’t think there is a government web manager out there who isn’t floating in a sea of new ideas, stirred by the passion to serve. This is a very good thing.

But at some point, innovation in government always hits that brick wall of reality: the responsibility not only to serve citizens but also to respect and protect their rights and needs. Citizens count on government to do the right thing. Security and privacy and accessibility and open competition and fairness are important to citizens and the reality that government faces. These responsibilities can hobble innovation, and some innovators try to suppress or ignore these responsibilities - seldom a successful strategy. But I don’t think that’s going to happen this time.

I think these innovators will use their creativity and passion and “crowd-sourcing” to look at constraints and problems in the ways responsibilities have been managed in the past and find new ways to do the right thing for the American people. In most cases, it’s the processes that are the problem - not the principle involved. I think these innovators have what it takes to make the processes better. Heck, we all know it’s usually harder to fix what is than to do something entirely new. But I think these folks are up to that challenge. So let the real innovation begin!

Three interesting blog pieces caught my attention recently. The first is a very well done piece by Gwynne Kostin, who manages web operations at Homeland Security and is on the Federal Web Managers Council. It’s entitled, “What Is the Most Important Thing;“ and in it, Gwynne ponders how government can move forward with the promise of social media and other possibilities, while confronting the realities of existing legislation and policies. She likens it to an intersection, where innovation and responsibility to the public cross paths. How can we all get to our destinations?

The second, “Mixed Feelings About OGI Conference,“ by Jaime Maynard (portions repeated in Gwynne’s blog and posted originally on Govloop - a social networking site that is a wonderful innovation in itself) expressed the frustration that some (many?) government web managers are feeling as they go to camp after camp, conference after conference, and hear all the exciting things going on at other agencies - particularly in the area of social media - when they can’t break through the red tape or reticence of their own agencies to begin similar innovations.

The third piece is a reality check done by Tanya Gupta called, “Why Do Governments Keep Getting Technology Wrong?” Tanya reminds us that citizens still can’t find what they want on government websites and don’t understand why it’s so hard for government agencies to get that right.

Gwynne’s piece comes from an optimistic innovator who has experienced success and is frustrated by - but realistic about - the responsibilities that are hindering progress. She wants to address the issues at the intersection of innovation and responsibility and find some peaceful resolution so everyone can move forward. No doubt in my mind that Gwynne will be a leader in that effort.

Jaime is just plain frustrated. She probably represents a sizable portion of the web manager community who feels powerless to try new things. And then there’s Tanya, who reminds us of that elephant in the room - the one that some would rather circumvent than fix - those enormous government websites that need to be rewritten, reorganized, and reduced. Web managers know what Tanya wants. They’re just tired of trying to fix these out-of-control websites with no support. Hello - innovators?

We have skilled, passionate innovators in all the right places who can turn on their creative juices and find ground-breaking ways to carry out government’s responsibilities better. I think they’ll find ways to get rid of outdated processes and mandates and replace them with new, improved ways to achieve the same objectives. I think they’ll deal with the obstacles to making government websites really useful to citizens (don’t give up hope, Tanya!). They get it. And I think these energizer bunnies can do it!

As for you innovative web managers in agencies not yet caught up in the innovation cyclone... don't despair. You can still be innovative. Maybe you can’t move out on social media yet, but maybe you can come up with innovative approaches to fix those websites that so disappoint Tanya and other citizens. You can be ready with ideas for that time when your agencies do get onboard this change train. You can seek out innovators in and outside of your agencies and build alliances - start your own crowd-sourcing. You can get involved in the web manager community’s efforts to develop new initiatives. To paraphrase that old serenity saying: change what you can, accept what you can‘t change, and be smart enough to know the difference. There are always opportunities to be innovative.

Exciting times. Lots of new energy. Lots of pent-up energy being released. Social media,, public-private collaboration - all the new stuff is good. But I’m just as pleased to see these innovators turn their collective energy and talents to fixing the old stuff - helping government carry out its responsibilities better. That’s a huge - and difficult - challenge. Now the real innovation begins!

1 comment:

Tanya said...

Excellent points. Especially on the importance of communicating and coordinating between government agencies. Here is a take on how this is relevant in Virginia vis-a-vis Governor Kaine and VITA:
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