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Open Innovation in Government

ObamaPresident Obama on his second day in office issued a Presidential Memorandum on openness in government.  This is a bold vision of creating a more effective, open government.  The approach outlined in the memo is guided by the core values of transparency, participation and collaboration.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Global Development Commons convened a panel on Tuesday in Washington DC about Open Innovation in Government.  Fortunately, the Global Development Commons streamed it live via www.ustream.com and you can see it archived here.

Doug Comstock, the Chief of the Innovative Partnership Program at NASA, was on the panel, along with a representative from the Department of State, USAID and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Dr. Beth Noveck, now at OSTP, clearly articulated that things are changing in government.  As she put it, we are at the beginning of a new era applying available technologies to make public policy in better and more effective ways.  From her previous projects you can see she has been experimenting with different approaches and technologies to bring about openness and collaboration.

The panelists from government agencies spoke of projects that people are doing within their organization to innovate and become more transparent, participatory and collaborative. NASA was shown to be extremely innovative within our government statutes, and in some cases working with legislators to get permission.  We should be quite proud of the infrastructure we have in place to bring technology into NASA and shift technology out of NASA.  We have the COTS program, Centennial Challenges (prizes), SeedFund, SBIR, STTR, Innovation Ambassadors, and have representatives at each of NASA’s 10 field Centers across the country.

NASA has done an excellent job of innovating, however in my opinion, we have not yet embraced ‘open innovation.’ The closest we have to this is the ‘participatory exploration’ meme propagated and embraced by NASA’s Education and Public Outreach activities, but we have yet to penetrate our internal governance and daily activities.  The 2007 Participatory Exploration Summit sponsored by Doug’s IPP Office, the Space Operations Mission Directorate, and the National Space Society is full of considerations for NASA, some of which are occurring today.  However, there are elements of our work environment and cultural anchors from our past successes and failures, which pose a challenge toward progression.

Doug alluded to a direction forward.  He stated that we can innovate on the margins without placing the innovative ventures on critical path, but instead use these novel approaches to mitigate main-line activities (the COTS program, for example).  Additionally, Doug spoke of participatory exploration (see Nick’s Presentation and an informal Transition Paper) and examples that have occurred at the project level (such as Stardust@Home, Clickworkers, DashLink) that embodies transparency, participation, and collaboration.

Open Innovation is a shift in world-view that embraces a posture of learning.  This is creating a culture of listening and learning, overcoming the “culture of clearance”, as stated by Dr. Jeremy Curtin from the Department of State, and “bring the fearlessness of failure into government” as articulated by Beth Noveck. I believe this means to create the environment for teams to innovate, as true innovation is met with many challenges.  If you stop at one challenge, you fail, but if you create the environment for “failure” you never actually fail.  You learn from your experiences and build the trusting, resilient team to mitigate challenges, create opportunities, and become successful.

Bring the fearlessness of failure into government.
–Dr. Beth Noveck, OSTP

Adopting a learning-by-doing mentality rather than and a top-down, requirements driven, waterfall approach to innovation is quite a change in how we work at NASA.  Shifting to a culture of action, collaboration, and transparency will be a challenge, as any ‘shift’ or ‘change’ is an alternation of business-as-usual and is resisted by some, especially if the shift is a short-term or perceived weakening of their position.

True open innovation is more about adopting new processes and practices rather than technology.  This starts with a trust and belief in the experience and expertise of others outside your trusted circle.  This means people in the other building, or in the other code, center or government agency.  This even means the “public.” To authentically listen means that you are embracing the fact that we don’t have all the answers (remember the NASA slogan, “… as only NASA can”).  Additionally, when people take the time to engage and talk, this should be met with collaboration and as necessary, an alteration of the path forward.

Transparency is the first step in creating participation and collaboration.  The days of making policy behind closed doors with a small group of experts are gone.  As Beth Noveck boldly stated, this is “bringing democracy into the 21st century.”

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