Eight lessons on innovation from Obama's administrative head

By Stephen Easton

March 27, 2018

Denise Turner Roth

Not everything went according to plan in a push towards innovation, online platforms and administrative efficiency during the Obama administration, but progress was made and a lessons were learned along the way.

Denise Turner Roth, former head of the United States General Services Administration, distilled those learnings into eight simple points for delegates at today’s Public Sector Innovation Show in Canberra.

Her key theme was how to institute new ways of working in government that are sustainable. A range of change projects from her time in the position remain in place, like the US government’s login.gov platform — a similar idea to myGov — and various other websites built on it like usajobs.gov and the online form to apply for a global entry pass.

There was also a priority on evolving shared corporate services to provide the hundreds of federal agencies with more than “one-size-fits-all” options, including newer private-sector offerings, she explained, while hopefully still trying to achieve the efficiency that is the whole purpose.

A Unified Shared Services Management office was established to take charge of researching the market and the best ways to provide shared services across the massive US bureaucracy and it remains in place. There were also problems in her time, like the high-profile failure of the new healthcare.gov website to launch.

It was a tough time, and lots of words have been written poring over it, including by the US audit office, but in hindsight Roth is proud of how the team was able to rally and pull the project out of the fire.

The eight lessons

First, a utilitarian argument. Choose the projects that will impact the largest number of people, and which look like having the best chance of success.

“And project the capacity for creating positive change; that was really important for us — recognising that not everything gets picked up right away but if you can demonstrate a quick win, that had value,” Roth said.

Next was to keep your goals and messages simple. “Outcomes are your friend. And everybody can understand that … we’re all trying to get the same outcomes.”

Third was “ingrain solutions into the fabric of the organisation” to make the change sustainable.

This, she said, also involved “understanding and appreciating that there are some things that may not be worth blowing up, but rather understanding how it works and adapting to it and making it work for you”.

“Four: make it easy for those who have been part of the problem to become part of the solution,” Roth said. “And it’s really just recognising that people have been there for some time, and they have been trying to make those changes … and they may have seen it from a different perspective than you, but it doesn’t mean their perspective is any less valuable.”

The fifth piece of advice was to promote a “user-centred, agile delivery development method” for transformational projects, breaking them up into a series of smaller goals.

“I know we’ve all heard that, but it was an important approach that we’d continue to go back to as we were thinking about how to put a program in place,” said Roth. “And we all need it; we all need to iterate and we all need that opportunity to go back and look again.”

Her next tip was also an endorsement of a familiar piece of advice: creating “small, talented multi-disciplinary teams” with a range of backgrounds and perspectives really made the difference, she argued, “even when the challenge calls for big change”.

Roth advised public servants to “pitch a large tent that brings in stakeholders” with every project, and finally, have a thick skin.

“There will be those that support you and there will be those that oppose you,” she said. “Choose your battles and stake your claim.

“I mean, ultimately, that’s what we’re all here for, right? We have to be willing to be the one to say, ‘This is it. This is the direction, I will stand for it’.”

The positive effect of DFAT’s InnovationXchange

Roth followed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s first chief innovation officer, Sarah Pearson, who explained that in only a few years, the InnovationXchange has changed Australia’s approach to foreign aid significantly.

Traditional development projects are now complemented with a range of interesting new international partnerships, based on the idea of helping people in developing nations to help themselves, by stimulating small local start-up companies and backing new ideas through collaborations with local and international organisations.

Beyond looking at its own work — through a project called reDesign that aims to establish a more efficient hub-and-spoke model for large and small diplomatic posts, for example — Pearson said DFAT’s innovation lab was now working towards growing “innovation ecosystems” in our regional neighbours.

However, these efforts still need to go from “piecemeal” to “holistic” in her view, and she has big plans to scale up innovation into real solutions, by supporting various incubators and accelerators in regions like Africa and the Indo-Pacific, and through partnerships with bodies like the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.

DFAT is also setting up a “brokerage” to channel international venture capital into the region, she said, and is trying to encourage more social impact investment as well. The department has also formed a partnership to fund an “ecosystem accelerator” with GSMA, the global body representing mobile networks around the world.

The idea is to give “the poorest of the poor” access to a fully formed innovation system.

“This was just a dream probably a couple of years ago,” Pearson said, “and to see people in developing countries going, ‘Give us the power; we know what we want to do, just get out of our way and let us do it,’ that’s just phenomenally exciting.”

Another piece is aimed at researching and developing technological maturity in the region, and promoting “smart cities” that are sustainable and inclusive for their inhabitants, in partnership with the Association of South East Asian Nations.

“Originally we were set up mainly to focus on aid but now what we’re doing is focusing on foreign affairs, aid and trade, so it’s not just about aid, it’s the whole of DFAT,” she said.

“So the next phase of our expansion and our maturity is how we apply what we’ve learned to the whole of DFAT.”

For example, the smart cities project is about supporting developing countries but it’s also a way to boost trade in our region, she explained, by stimulating the growth of overseas markets as well as directly creating opportunities for Australian companies.

In terms of foreign affairs, her message for diplomats is “use me as an ambassador” – “I can talk the hind legs off a donkey about innovation so get me in front of whoever you want and I’ll be able to build relationships for you – trust – with the governments in the countries that we’re working with.”

Establishing her new position was “a real stake in the ground” demonstrating DFAT takes all this innovation stuff seriously, Pearson added. Part of the plan is to build an innovation culture based around experimentation, learning and novel partnerships, and grow the related capabilities in the department.

Why? Because this new approach offers a possibility to benefit millions of people around the world and is already showing good results across our region, the chief innovation officer said.

“We bother with innovation because we want to make a difference,” Pearson said. “Innovation is about having an impact; innovation is about making as big a difference as you possibly can.”

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals