Culture change critical as agencies try to innovate — IT officials

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Frank Konieczny, chief technology officer for the Air Force, speaks at the Federal Innovation Summit. (FedScoop)

Fully embracing innovation in the federal government requires a culture change by officials, said many speakers at the Federal Innovation Summit Tuesday.

With innovations like cloud and the Internet of Things, federal technology executives have more tools at their disposal to help agencies better accomplish their goals. But, too often, entrenched processes hinder progress, several tech leaders said at the event, presented by Samsung and produced by FedScoop.

“You can’t keep doing it the same way we used to do it,” Frank Konieczny, chief technology officer for the U.S. Air Force, said. “This is a problem.

“Change is a four-letter word in government.”

People working in government can be afraid to take risks because they don’t want to fail, he said during his keynote presentation. Government IT staff need the room to make small mistakes and quickly learn from them, he said.

He touted some ways the USAF was trying to promote innovation. Like other federal agencies, it’s working to buy and roll out new IT more quickly and in smaller pieces — rather than all at once. He pointed to a competition his branch held where contractors tested tools that plug “capability gaps” into the Air Force’s system.

The Air Force scored each product, he said, “and out of that, you can get a contract.”

He also said having user input is key for discussions of innovation. As a result the Air Force has forums on data, mobile enterprise services and cyber innovation to bring users together and coordinate efforts.

Companies also can help government evolve, he said, and the larger Defense Department has been looking for ways to engage more with the private sector. In particular, he pointed to the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, known as DIUx, program, where DOD is working to connect with innovators in Silicon Valley and Boston.

Likewise, the private sector will have an important role to play ahead of the next census, said Geof Pejsa, the agency’s 2020 mobile devices and services project manager. For the census that year, the agency plans to equip census takers with 350,000 to 400,000 devices to gather data. He said his agency plans to release a contract next year for a company to help to determine what devices could be used.

“Innovation can come from anywhere,” said Jim Tunnessen, CTO at the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “All you have to do is embrace it and allow it to happen. It’s already happening in your organizations, whether you know it or not.”

Recently, he said FSIS’ training team approached his group with a proposal to use virtual reality goggles.

“They had derived this great plan where they use VR goggles and implant usage by veterinarians to let people actually experience what the day-to-day work and life was like in that position as well as use that in training,” he said.

Tunnessen said his team worked with the training office to implement the technology.

Government has a long history of innovation, said Carrie Maslen, vice president of enterprise sales at Samsung. Whether it’s the New Deal social programs of the 1930s or NASA sending men to the moon, the government has been pushing the boundaries of what is possible, she said.

Those working in government IT now, she said, can carry that tradition forward.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be innovative. Innovation happens all the time in government in small or big ways,” she said.

Contact the reporter on this story via email Whitney.Wyckoff@fedscoop.com, or follow her on Twitter @whitneywyckoff. Sign up for all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning at 6:00 here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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