Sticky-note strategy: How federal innovation labs borrow from Silicon Valley

Carten Cordell in the Federal Times: “The framework for an integrated security solution in the Philippines is built on a bedrock of sticky notes. So is the strategy for combating piracy in East Africa and a handful of other plans that Zvika Krieger is crafting in a cauldron of collaboration within the State Department.

More specifically, Krieger, a senior adviser for strategy within the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, is working in the bureau’s Strategy Lab, just one pocket of federal government where a Silicon Valley-playbook for innovation is being used to develop policy solutions….

Krieger and a host of other policy thinkers learned a new way to channel innovation for policy solutions called human-centered design, or design thinking. While arguably new in government, the framework has long been in use by the tech sector to design products that will serve the needs of their customers. The strategy of group thinking towards a policy — which is more what these innovation labs seek to achieve — has been used before as well….Where the government has started to use HCD is in developing new policy solutions within a multifaceted group of stakeholders that can contribute a well-rounded slate of expertise. The product is a strategy that is developed from the creative thoughts of a team of experts, rather than a single specialized source….

The core tenet of HCD is to establish a meritocracy of ideas that is both empathetic of thought and immune to hierarchy. In order to get innovative solutions for a complex problem, Krieger forms a team of experts and stakeholders. He then mixes in outside thought leaders he calls “wild cards” to give the group outside perspective.

The delicate balance opens discussion and the mix of ideas ultimately form a strategy for handling the problem. That strategy might involve a technology; but it could also be a new partnership, a new function within an office, or a new acquisition program. Because the team is comprised of multiple experts, it can navigate the complexity more thoroughly, and the wild cards can offer their expertise to provide solutions the stakeholders may not have considered….

Human-centered design has been working its way through pockets of the federal government for a few years now. The Office of Personnel Management opened its Innovation Lab in 2012 and was tasked with improving the USAJobs website. The Department of Health and Human Services opened the IDEA Lab in 2013 to address innovation in its mission. The Department of Veteran Affairs has a Center of Innovation to identify new approaches to meet the current and future needs of veterans, and the departments of Defense and State both have innovation labs tackling policy solutions.

The concept is gaining momentum. This fall, the Obama administration released a strategy report calling for a network of innovation labs throughout federal agencies to develop new policy solutions through HCD.

“I think the word is spreading. It’s kind of like a whisper campaign, in the most positive way,” said an administration official with knowledge of innovation labs and HCD strategies, who was not authorized to speak to the press. “I think, again, the only constraint here is that we don’t have enough of them to be able to imbue this knowledge across government. We need many more people.”

A March 2014 GAO report said that the OPM Innovation Lab had not developed consistent performance targets that would allow it to assess the success of its projects. The report recommended more consistent milestones to assess progress, which the agency addressed through a series of pilot programs….

In the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, an innovation lab called the Collaboratory is in its second year of existence, using HCD strategies to improve projects like the Fulbright program and other educational diplomacy efforts.

The Education Diplomacy initiative, for example, used HCD to devise ways to increase education access abroad using State resources. Defining U.S. embassies as the end user, the Collaboratory then analyzed the areas of need at the installations and began crafting policies.

“We identified a couple of area where we thought we could make substantial gains quite quickly and in a budget neutral way,” Collaboratory Deputy Director Paul Kruchoski said. The process allowed multiple stakeholders like the U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Corps and the Department of Education to help craft the policy and create what Kruchoski called “feedback loops” to refine throughout the embassies…(More)”