Innovation czar: Agencies too self-congratulatory on digital

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GSA’s Gwynne Kostin led a Star Wars-themed discussion about digital services at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Digital Innovation Summit. (FedScoop)

Agencies are struggling to achieve truly transformational results from the Digital Government Strategy because they’re too quick to celebrate small achievements and too slow to recognize big problems, according to the General Services Administration’s digital lead.

Gwynne Kostin, the director of the DigitalGov program within GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, told an audience Wednesday at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Digital Innovation Summit that the attitude toward digital innovation in the federal government is akin to the self-esteem boosting practice of giving participatory trophies to young athletes.

“Too often, what we’re seeing is we’re praising ourselves for everything,” she said at the event, produced by FedScoop. “So we’re not looking critically at what we’re doing. I’m not saying we have to hate ourselves … what I’m saying is if we’re so busy saying we’re wonderful, we’re losing the opportunity to critically look at what we’re doing and make it better.”

But by celebrating what she called “operational” results of the digital strategy, like process improvement and increased efficiency, Kostin said agencies are missing out on opportunities to achieve truly transformational results: improved decision-making and innovation.

“If you have a process that you’re making faster, but it’s a bad process, it’s still a bad process [but] faster. But what is it really that makes us think differently, that makes us jump ahead to doing new things?” she said. “That’s really looking much further ahead than many of us have been — cause we’re really focused on improving our processes, being more efficient and serving our customers. Again, not unimportant, but what it’s doing is interrupting us from really doing a lot of innovation.”

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“Every incremental change, every launch of every dumb website is like the second coming of Jesus.”

— Gwynne Kostin

Instead of continuing the progression after a minor success, organizations act as though “every incremental change, every launch of every dumb website is like the second coming of Jesus,” Kostin said.

“We’re losing opportunities when everybody gets a trophy,” she said. “And when we’re looking at our strategies, let’s take a look at what failed, and let’s be honest about what failed so we can go from there.”

During her opening presentation, which she based around the Star Wars series, Kostin also pushed for “a diversity of ideas,” solving for more than just “x” — instead, “solving for Mars” or the thing that really makes a difference for American citizens — and emphasizing the individual strengths of the people behind a team.

“Those are the people who are going to be solving these problems,” she said, noting how smugglers Han Solo and Chewbacca played key roles in the success of the Rebel Alliance, and even “bureaucrat” C-3PO came to the rescue a few times. “Those are the people who are going to be improving these processes. Those are the people who are going to be taking this digital strategy and delivering on the promise that we have on it … We need to move beyond looking at somebody else.”

Kostin concluded her talk with a classic Star Wars message for the audience: “You’re our only hope.”

This week, Kostin began a yearlong fellowship with the Partnership for Public Service as part of its “Ready to Govern” project, which aims to smooth the transition between presidential administrations come 2017.

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Citizen Services, Government IT News, Gwynne Kostin, Innovation
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