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Innovation & Design

What Obama Needs to Know About Innovation

For President-elect Obama to fulfill his promises for change, he needs to have an informed approach to the practice of innovation

Now that the election is over, it is abundantly clear that Americans everywhere want "change." Unfortunately, the forces that prohibit change in the federal system are well documented and mounting. I am reminded of a comment made to me recently by a former Speaker of the House in response to my inquiry about where to start in getting the federal government to embrace innovation: "I wouldn't have any expectation that you could get Washington to embrace innovation," he said. "Washington is broken."

Clearly, President-elect Obama has a tough job in front of him. Faced with massively failing systems in health care, social security, and education, coupled with an unfolding disaster in the financial markets, Americans are clamoring for leadership and creative ideas to aid a rescue. Energy policy, infrastructure, and regulation all require serious retooling in order to maintain relevancy and integrity for the long term. With massive deficits looming based on U.S. involvement in its wars as well as the recent financial bailouts, what's required is radical innovation, not mere incremental "change."

For this to happen, the process under which solutions are derived needs to change, too. How great would it be to change the typical political process from bureaucracy, hype, and inaction to real-time co-creation that involves everyone from the politicians and agency leadership down through private stakeholders and the core population? How great would it be to build and test prototypes before committing our nation to decisions with the possible cataclysmic ramifications we've seen with our recent self-inflicted financial meltdown?

But who will enable and lead this effort day-to-day? Will a center of gravity for government innovation emerge? I must say the Democrats have many smart folks in their party, but few are known as innovators. President-elect Obama's Web site is a breath of transparent air when it comes to understanding the direction the next administration is taking, but there's clearly a long way to go. What can Obama's team learn about innovation from other environments? Here are some ideas:

Learn from Failure

We must compare failed attempts at innovation to successful efforts of similar complexity. What is missing? What is different? What can and can't be applied to government policy? The goal would be to offer a set of recommendations for new processes and tools that enhance success rates based on knowledge of what has worked in other profit and nonprofit settings. Projects to study might include the development of GE's (GE) SupportCentral collaboration and workflow environment, sponsored by GE Senior Vice-President and CIO, Gary M. Reiner. This system supports 400,000 global users in 6,000 locations around the world, all working in a Web 2.0 interface. Users have created more than 50,000 communities with more than 100,000 experts signed up to answer questions and manage information. On a smaller, but no less important scale, the American Heart Association just set up an online tool to create e-mailable shopping lists to interested parties of heart-healthy foods.

Analyze Bureaucracy

Has anyone attempted to catalog what environment for innovation exists within government agencies? It is popular to blame policymakers for ineffectiveness, but we also know huge bureaucracies exists, and they can be one of the biggest impediments to innovation. Since change management is one of the most difficult challenges known to large organizations, their experiences could help to support change where the work ultimately gets done. Having recently transformed a plethora of management practices at the General Accounting Office (GAO), David M. Walker, currently President and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and former U.S. Comptroller General, would be a great person to call on for insight. Under his leadership, GAO went from an "at risk" agency in 1998 to being currently viewed as one of the best and most effective agencies in the federal government.

Look Globally to Learn

What can we learn from policymakers in other parts of the world? There are some powerful examples of effective innovation from Britain, Scandinavia, and Asia. Inland Revenue, New Zealand's government agency that collects taxes and administers a number of social support programs, manages 150 project management and service design professionals. It is currently working on 230 design initiatives that include critical projects such as improving a system that helps people file tax returns. Inland Revenue's design agenda is driven either by legislative changes or by opportunity for operational improvement. All innovators need inspiration. And there is much to be gleaned for how governments have fostered innovation beyond our shores.

My parents always taught me there is responsibility attached to conjuring up hope. Recognizing the levels of change and innovation required to satisfy the expectations raised by President-elect Obama, let us offer this man and his team support and patience. But let's be clear: without an informed approach to the practice of innovation along with an innovation tool kit, they will probably fail to meet expectations.

Jeneanne Rae is the co-founder and president of Peer Insight, a consulting firm focused on services innovation and customer-experience design for SP 500 firms. She has worked in the field of innovation and design for over seventeen years, consulting and educating dozens of leading companies in a multitude of industries. In 2005, BusinessWeek named Rae one of its "Leaders of the Year." .

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