Creating a Culture of Lasting Innovation & Continuous Improvement

By Denise Turner Roth, GSA Administrator and Garren Givens, Program Director, Presidential Innovation Fellows

Presidential Innovation Fellows logo - eagle in circle surrounded by stars

Today, President Obama announced an executive order that formally establishes the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and houses it within the walls of U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). The program is made up of a diverse group of proven innovators from around the country who serve as partners to policy and domain experts already working within government.  

While the program provides a unique experience for the men and women selected, the primary objective is to create a more responsive government; one that continually leverages the best principles and practices to deliver better, more effective government programs and policies. In technology, we refer to this as “continuous improvement” — the virtuous process of designing, developing, and iterating based on end-users, not government stakeholders.

In just a few short years, fellows and their federal partners have made large gains on a number of complex challenges that impact millions of Americans.  They’ve done so by starting small, and iterating early and often. In addition, fellows have relied on “validated learning” to drive decisions about where to deploy resources, like time, effort, and taxpayer money.  

Best Practices from the Private Sector

Among the best examples of the work coming out of the program are the pilot and subsequent platforms the Fellows launched to improvement procurement.  Beginning in 2012, the first team of fellows launched a pilot focused on making it easier for private sector to learn about and compete for government contracts.  

Critical feedback from this pilot showed that greater transparency led to more competitive bids, benefitting both the agencies and the taxpayers they serve. This led to the development of several platforms, now in beta, that build on these learnings and are challenging us to think differently about how we engage the private sector.  

Each of these platforms was developed to minimize the upfront cost necessary to evaluate effectiveness, and determine whether to invest or iterate further. If successful, not only will we succeed in ensuring agencies have access to the best possible services and solutions at competitive prices, but small and medium-sized technology companies will be better positioned than ever to compete for the huge sum the federal government spends on information technology.

Leveraging the Power of the People

Another powerful strategy focuses on crowdsourcing solutions, where government acts as a platform on which entrepreneurs, startups, and the private sector can build value-added services and tools on top of federal datasets supported by federal policies. Taking this approach, fellows and their federal partners have spurred the creation of new products and services focused on education, health, the environment, social justice, and much more.

For example, fellows worked with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to launch the Blue Button Initiative, which is helping Americans across the country gain secure, online access to their own healthcare information. Now, more than 150 million Americans can use Blue Button-enabled tools to access at least one source of their personal health data  from the nation’s top pharmacies, health providers around the country, insurance companies, and labs.

Improving Digital Services Across Government

To date, the Presidential Innovation Fellows have played key roles in establishing both 18F, an innovative consulting and agile delivery team, and the United States Digital Services, a team built to improve the infrastructure and user experience around some of the most important services.  All are working to reinvent the transactions that affect us in our everyday lives, such as accessing healthcare and benefits, securing and managing student loans, and applying for citizenship.

These teams have attracted almost 200 new innovators and technologists to government to help catalyze the change they’d like to see. And on the ground, agencies like the Department of Commerce, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and many more, have built their own teams.  All are working to inculcate these values into their government through recruiting, training, and of course, delivery. To make it last, we must turn our focus on retaining great talent that can help develop our existing federal workforce of passionate bureaucrats into champions of innovation and reinvention.  

Innovation as a Shared Service

In placing the Presidential Innovation Fellows program at GSA, the goal is to capitalize on the agency’s experience in delivering shared acquisition and IT services across the entire federal government and arm great innovators from inside and outside government with the tools needed to improve the lives of the people we serve. This work is never done.

And this, we hope, will be the true legacy of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program; that the notion of continuous improvement will not be limited to services we create and provide, but will extend to government itself; that we will continue to evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities relevant to our time, and that we will strive to always represent our best self – built on the most innovative thinking, in service to the needs of the people.

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The Presidential Innovation Fellows program is currently on the lookout for the most talented innovators and technologists to work on our nation’s most pressing challenges. Acting as a small team alongside Federal agency “co-founders,” Fellows will serve for 12 months as entrepreneurs-in-residence, working quickly and iteratively to turn promising ideas into game-changing solutions. Apply online (use referral code “GSA15” on your application).

Presidential Innovation Fellows on steps of the White House
All current and former Presidential Innovation Fellows were invited to the White House recently for a reunion event.