GAO to Congress: Federal Agencies Are Making a Difference Through Open Innovation

Oct 21, 2016

Federal agencies confront tough problems every day. In searching for solutions, agencies will want to attract different perspectives, test new products, build capacity and communities, and increase public awareness.

How do they do it?

The answer: open innovation.

Federal agencies need to engage and collaborate with all sectors of society, a task made easier by online technologies, says a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued last week.

OPEN INNOVATION: Practices to Engage Citizens and Effectively Implement Federal Initiatives is accompanied by an infographic and podcast, all well worth your while. Many of the highlighted activities were spearheaded by communities represented on DigitalGov: crowdsourcing and citizen science, open data, and prize competitions.

The GAO report is more evidence of the federal government’s efforts to modernize its approach to innovation, something President Obama spoke about during his Oct. 15 weekly address. He used the address to tout many advances in science and technology that have come as a result of innovation and collaboration between the government, industry, academia and citizens.

The president cited many accomplishments that are the direct result of open innovation methods such as prize competitions, crowdsourcing and citizen science.

“We’ve jumpstarted a clean energy revolution and unleashed the potential of precision medicine,” he said. “We’ve partnered with the private sector and academia, and launched moonshots for cancer, brain research, and solar energy. We’ve harnessed big data to foster social innovation and invested in STEM education and computer science so that every young person – no matter where they come from or what they look like – can reach their potential and help us win the future.”

The GAO report shows the impact of open innovation through examples of 15 projects at six agencies. Among those cited:

  • NASA used a prize competition to develop a new algorithm that has led to faster, more accurate detection of asteroids.
  • The Department of Transportation used ideation to identify innovations that would improve highway projects. Teams from local, state and federal governments, as well as industry, then went to work to put the innovations to use.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency worked with an extensive partner network to run a challenge that produced visualizations to increase public awareness of water pollution.

Through interviews with the agencies involved, GAO has identified steps that can lead to effective open innovation and serve as a framework for evaluating such projects. They are:

  • Selecting the strategy appropriate for the purpose of engaging the public and the agency’s capabilities
  • Clearly defining specific goals and performance measures for the initiative
  • Identifying and engaging external stakeholders and potential partners
  • Developing plans for implementing the initiative and recruiting participants
  • Engaging participants and partners while implementing the initiative
  • Collecting and assessing relevant data and report results
  • Sustaining communities of interested partners and participants

That last one is key, especially for agencies who have completed a challenge or prize competition and confront the question of “What now?”

The follow-up piece of sustaining a community of interest can help agencies figure out what to do with a new product or idea. In addition, GAO notes, it will give an agency a ready-made network of innovators for future projects.

If your agency is looking to be more open and innovative in addressing its mission (and it should be), be sure to read the entire GAO report. Again, the content also comes in the form of a podcast and infographic that are well worth your while.