How New Federal Leaders Can Prioritize Innovation Wherever They Land

October 1, 2021–By Kyla Fullenwider and Katie Hawkinson

Innovation in the federal government can create lasting impact well beyond Washington, D.C. From improving local Census outreach to transforming the way the Department of Veterans Affairs works with and understands veterans, human-centered, technology-informed strategies can create meaningful change that directly impacts the lives of the American people. 

Earlier this year, in partnership with the Tech Talent Project, the Beeck Center released The New Government Appointee Guidebook, featuring a series of case studies and resources for public servants newly entering government. Today, we are releasing the second part of the guidebook which looks at how federal leaders can ensure their agencies have the key technical competencies needed to deliver on critical missions. This second part of the guidebook is designed for practical and immediate use and includes an overview of Tech Talent’s “10 tech competencies” critical for federal leadership, tech competency cheat sheets, and common myths about tech and delivery in government. 

While the guidebook is focused on public servants in federal agencies, public servants at the state and local level will find it useful and relevant to their own transformation efforts. Taken as a whole, it can serve as a step-by-step path to promote and sustain innovation and continuous improvement wherever you serve. 

Here are the key takeaways so that you, too, can effect positive change for your professional team:

1. Human-centered design and institutional innovation. When Ann Kim joined the Office of the Surgeon General as their first chief design officer, her first item of business was to positively shift the office culture to improve the team’s external impact. Kim prioritized creating a shared physical space, ensuring staffers followed an “open-door policy,” identifying institutional compasses, and emphasizing community outreach as it related to the office’s work. In just two short years, the Census Open Innovation Labs had begun to create positive change in their internal office culture, focusing on collaboration and communication. Kim’s success story reinforces multiple key competencies that the Beeck Center analysts identified. Most importantly, her work shows that human-centered design is an important framework for facilitating innovation. Furthermore, by emphasizing open-door policies that increased communication and increasing external outreach, Kim positively impacted the office’s ability to collaborate as a team and communicate effectively with the communities that they serve.

2. Technology-informed decisions and management: In the 21st-century, government agencies can not achieve their full potential without up-to-date, technology-focused strategies. Through a series of micro-case studies, the Beeck Center has compiled a list of technology-related competencies essential for effective agency operations. These include technology-informed decision making, where digital leaders have channels through which to communicate their expertise, prioritizing cybersecurity, implementing cloud-centered infrastructure management, modern stack software development, technology procurement, and keeping up-to-date on emerging technologies.

3. Avoid common myths about technology and delivery. Throughout the course of this study, analysts from the Tech Talent Project brought together more than 80 agencies leaders in policy, operations, and technology to develop a set of memos for the 2020 presidential transition. During these discussions, our team identified four persistent myths about technology and delivery that can hinder effective federal leadership. To ensure effective technology-focused leadership, keep in mind these four tips:

  • Prioritize technological expertise and strong data leadership throughout the policymaking process.
  • Use effective technical budgeting, procurement, and hiring practices to ensure that technical expertise is strong throughout the agency.
  • Continually invest in technological systems and expertise.
  • Prioritize making high-impact changes now; technological changes do not have to stay in the abstract imagination. 

Interested in learning more? You can find the full report here.

Kyla Fullenwider is a fellow at the Beeck Center working on data and innovation projects. She teaches Design for Democracy in the Georgetown School of Foriegn Service. Follow her at @kylafullenwider.

Katie Hawkinson is a student analyst at the Beeck Center working on storytelling and communications. She is studying history, with a minor in global medieval studies.