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Article Article July 13th, 2017

A new way to spur government innovation

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Budget changes can either catalyse government innovation or paralyse it, says @phaedrachrousos

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"Innovation is just responsiveness," according to @phaedrachrousos

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Governments need all the tools that the private sector has access to, says @phaedrachrousos

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The Trump presidency continues to prompt much analysis and comment on cable news shows and beyond. But while friends and foes jostle over the presidential narrative, there is no doubt that his proposals and actions have already had a huge impact on the machinery of the federal government. Take the Budget his team submitted to Congress, for example.

Phaedra Chrousos, former chief customer officer and commissioner of the Technology Transformation Service at the General Services Administration (GSA), believes that the proposals will have either a paralysing or a catalytic effect. "I think it can go one of two ways," she points out. "It can either be used as the ultimate excuse not to innovate: you can come up with all sorts of excuses as to why you can't change the status quo because you don't have the money to do so. On the other hand, the flip side of this is that it will force people to think of how to do things differently."

The new reality beckons

The GSA was established in 1949 to help manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies. It supplies products and communications for government offices, provides transportation and office space to federal employees, develops government-wide cost-minimising policies and, in 2014, appointed Chrousos as its first ever chief customer officer (and first in the federal government as a whole).

Before she entered government service, she cofounded and led two companies - the first was a health tech company, the second a digital media company. It was this kind of entrepreneurial know-how that she sought to inject into GSA as chief customer officer as well as in her subsequent role as the commissioner of the Technology Transformation Service. This involved managing a US$60m portfolio of digital products built or bought specifically for the government, as well as scaling 18F up into a 200-person team delivering digital services to the American public.

The proposed changes are inevitably going to make an impact - change always does. For example, doubling the size of a programme is not easy because this would involve increasing activity via static administrative and oversight structures. But if government activity is going to be reduced, then this also has to be planned for - because it can create confusion among the citizens who had been engaging with a fuller footprint of activities.

“Innovation is just responsiveness”

In addition to the planned budget changes, the federal government had until recently been operating under the terms of President Trump's hiring freeze, introduced via one of his first executive orders. Although the order has now been lifted, it is worth asking if downsizing would have the effect of discouraging people from serving in government.

"A lot of the people recruited in from the private sector are coming in out of patriotic duty," says Chrousos. "I think the environment you're putting these people in is an important aspect of attracting them and retaining them. But when you're managing by attrition, you're going to lose these people, as well as their enthusiasm for staying."

But that's not to say that innovation will prove impossible in the new environment - not at all. "I'm sure you can take existing processes and digitally underpin them and get budget back that way as well," she says. "One of the things this administration can do is remove the barrier between the metaphysical Silicon Valley companies and the government, and allow them to use all the tools that the private sector has access to - even things as simple as productivity tools or HR tools. In the end, innovation is just responsiveness - responsiveness to your environment or to changing technology or to your customer base. Being responsive can be free.”

So, what happens next?

The fast pace of the past few months means that, like all presidencies, predicting what happens next is easier said than done. From her current vantage point as chief innovation officer of Libra Group, Chrousos says that a lot depends on the personality and approach of the government leaders affected by the proposed changes.

"I think we will find that resourceful people who believe it is their job to get things done, even when all things are against them, will get things done," she says. "But some will throw their hands up in the air and say 'it's not my fault the budgets have been cut' and those programmes will die. A lot depends on the willingness of the manager to take risks and push back to do what they need to do."

And nor is she downhearted - anything but. "You might think this is a doom and gloom scenario, but actually it could actually be an inflexion point for the government," she concludes. "Given the right time and resources and funding parameters, you may be able to take IRS call centres - for example - and turn them into Facebook chat rooms and meet customers where they actually are."

No doubt there will be many twists and turns ahead. Changing budgets and approaches is complex, and there will be some tension along this journey, but planning carefully will help ensure that government remains high-performing. And that's a goal that should unite both sides of the aisle.

Phaedra was a guest on the Gov Actually podcast. Check out the full conversation here and subscribe to future episodes on iTunes



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Written by:

Danny Werfel Partner and Managing Director at The Boston Consulting Group, Washington DC
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