Innovation Does Not Always Mean New
A story at the Coast Guard confirms the lesson that breakthroughs and innovation don’t necessarily require new technology. This past July, I attended the commissioning ceremony for the new Deployable Operations Group, a major innovation in its own right, formed by our commandant, Adm. Thad Allen, based upon his experiences marshaling Coast Guard assets in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The DOG, as it’s known, is a grouping of specially trained maritime safety and security forces — its aim being to create “adaptable force packages” for a broad range of missions.
After the ceremony at Fort McNair in Washington, guests milled around a number of displays including some of the DOG’s latest gear, along with historical exhibits and even fast boats and helicopters. This is where I found myself at one particular booth facing Gunner’s Mate First Class Carl Shipley. A member of a Maritime Safety and Security Team, his pet project was a remotely operated vehicle with which he had located a sunken buoy in deep, dark waters. The Coast Guard owned the ROV and its video camera, but his recent success came because of a sonar unit he had attached.
Shipley borrowed it from the manufacturer. If the water is dark or murky, then a video camera doesn’t get you too far, he pointed out to the sonar maker and me. In situations where safety is an issue, a diver can’t go down; that’s when an ROV should see action, and it should be ready for any conditions. “I want to buy the sonar unit,” he confided, “but my command doesn’t have $10,000.”
“$10,000?” I said. “I have $10,000.”
His eyes stayed wide as I went on to introduce myself: “I’m the Coast Guard’s innovation manager.”
Making the Rounds
Ultimately, to get his hands on the money from our Innovation Venture Capital Fund, he had to log into our Innovation Database and make his case for the merits of the sonar capability. After the Operational Directorate performed a review, the proposal was put to a vote of the Innovation Council, composed primarily of personnel around headquarters in Washington.
The request was voted down as not being innovative enough. The consensus: Sonar technology is nothing new.
But wait a minute, I thought. Using underwater sonar like this would be brand spanking new as far as the Coast Guard is concerned. When we have reason to believe that al-Qaida has planted a bomb in the murky, dirty harbor beneath a cruise ship pier, we’re going to be glad we have it, I reasoned. Also, a principle is at stake: Are we going to define innovation as simply the latest in technology? I know full well that sonar is “nothing new,” but Shipley is showing some innovative thinking. He would be filling a gap in our security capabilities. I wanted to be sure that any and all interested parties had a chance to consider this before we let it die away.
“I have some other ideas,” I told him.
This is the purpose of the Innovation Program, I believe: shepherding a project like this through every possible appeal for assistance. I contacted the Coast Guard’s R&D Center in Connecticut. The scientists there had also been studying potential ROV enhancements and would have been happy to partner with Shipley. “We could give him $10,000,” they said, “but not now. It’s the close out of the fiscal year. If it were any other time, it’d be no problem. Sorry.”
I put in a call to the program manager for Underwater Port Security. He was familiar with the issue but not entirely sure that sonar was worth buying for all the security teams around the country. Still, he was receptive and appreciated that Shipley was willing to go to all the trouble to prove the value of his idea. For that reason alone, the PM was willing to revisit the idea.
Call for Attention
I then decided that Shipley needed to gain momentum for his idea. He needed to get more people in the Coast Guard aware of what he’s been doing and to discuss whether this does in fact fill a gap in port security. He needed to see what industry had to offer and whether he would be making the wisest choice possible in imaging equipment.
To that end, I had him attend the recent Coast Guard’s Innovation Expo in New Orleans in late October. When Shipley played the video of his ROV finding the sunken buoy in the channel, it let people imagine it locating something far more sinister at the bottom of the harbor. This is a sad fact of life after Sept. 11, 2001, the day on which a set of box cutters — “nothing new” — changed history.
Now, we’ll see if the Coast Guard can find the dollars to apply this small idea in a bigger way.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Ingenuity
When you think “government IT,” do you think of an enterprise where technical risk taking is encouraged … and rewarded? If not, it’s time you paid a visit to the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate.
At S&T, homeland security professionals in information technology from government, industry and academia explore new ways to protect America while creating revolutionary technical capabilities and business models. Innovation programs will accelerate the next generation of public safety and security. Tomorrow’s communication systems will be more pervasive and interoperable for the responder community. Tomorrow’s responders will be freer to collaborate and share in an effective common operating picture that provides large-scale situational awareness.
Disrupt and Conquer
Like all work at S&T, IT investment is spread across three strategic portfolios:
- Under the Research Portfolio, researchers develop a foundation for future generations of applications. We’re investing in national laboratory resources such as the National Visualization and Analytics Center, which is helping scientists create new ways to literally see patterns in petabytes of data to detect the expected and discover the unexpected.
- Under the Transition Portfolio, we are working on IT tools to meet the government’s high-priority, near-term homeland security needs. The agencies tell us what they need (loud and clear) through multiagency integrated product teams.
- Between these long-term and near-term portfolios is the Innovation Portfolio. This is how we explore high-payoff, game-changing concepts. We build and test promising prototypes under a program known as Homeland Innovative Prototypical Solutions. For example, in one HIPS project, we hope to create the Scalable Common Operating Picture Environment that would work across the homeland security community information infrastructure so when disaster strikes, all analysts, decision-makers and responders can tap into the same information resources.
At DHS, innovation’s crown jewel is our Small Business Innovative Research program. Nimble, hungry small businesses are innovation’s lifeblood — and likely homeland security’s wellspring. Consider a small company of mathematicians and computer scientists in New York. They took a multimedia management system they’d developed for surveillance and created a new way to manage hundreds of surveillance cameras citywide. The system has piqued the interest of both the New York Police Department and the U.S. Capitol Police.
In traditional IT shops, committees “churn” to produce a next evolution of solutions. By contrast, innovation disrupts — both within the organization’s walls and beyond. “Innovate and disrupt” may sound like a revolutionary business model for federal IT. But it’s a model that has allowed S&T to get the department to fast-track IT solutions that work better and cost less. It’s a 21st-century approach to IT innovation through which the government is just beginning to reap the rewards.
Tear Down This Wall
Innovation and government are not words that always go together, but the realities of the new millennium make it imperative that all organizations, including governmental organizations, embrace innovation if they are to successfully carry out their missions.
Many companies are shifting from a model of operating as silos separated from each other to an open innovation model where they are linked to suppliers, customers, other organizations and even competitors.
Information technology is a key enabler of this new, more open and collaborative model. Technologies such as grid computing, instant messaging, telepresence and desktop collaboration tools let organizations, public and private, collaborate and innovate. Eli Lilly’s online portal InnoCentive lets it outsource R&D challenges (its own and those of other organizations) to the general community, and each chosen approach results in a reward for the “solver.” Likewise, IBM has used the Web to put together what it calls “innovation jams” to brainstorm new ideas.
Government should embrace such approaches and do the same, reaching out to its customers, other partners in government and even the general citizenry to help solve problems and develop new solutions. This doesn’t have to be as stifling and restrictive as posting notices in the Federal Register. Rather, it can be freewheeling and creative. How about an innovation jam on ways to improve disaster assistance? Or one on how to better provide service to individuals seeking job training? The possibilities and opportunities are endless but require agencies to take the risk of opening up and asking for input in a new way.
Not only is the private sector using IT to seek new ideas, they are using it to enable partnerships and outsourcing to enhance innovation and cut costs. For example, UPS uses its extensive transportation and IT network to run the logistics operations of many companies. Government needs to think in the same way and move beyond engaging with companies simply as e-government vendors and instead empower third-party for-profit and nonprofit organizations as partners in the provision of e-government services.
Power in Numbers
The number of participants that now collaborate and suggest ideas around problems posed to the open R&D portal at www.innocentive.com launched by Eli Lilly in 2001. In all, the network has attracted seekers (organizations posting challenges) and solvers (people offering solutions) from 175 countries.
Government and the private sector have already engaged in successful partnerships in numerous areas. One of the most widely used is tax preparation and filing. A host of companies now use software to simplify the complicated task of filing taxes. Because these firms are competing intensely for market share, they have strong incentives to make their programs as easy to use and comprehensive as possible.
It’s time to build on this Internal Revenue Service model by empowering for-profit and nonprofit organizations to help citizens and businesses interact electronically with government, particularly in areas that are inherently complex or involve cross-agency — even cross-government — functions. To do this, agencies must think of themselves less as direct providers of e-government services and more as enablers of third-party integrators that tie together multiple agencies across multiple levels of government to package information, forms, regulations and other government services and requirements in accessible ways.
To consider an example, imagine if a third-party provider created a site like the federal Web portal Recreation.gov and structured it so that all federal, state and local government and private recreation facilities were listed on one site. The site could contain a vast array of recreation resources. It could provide online reservation services. It could develop an interactive Web site providing citizens with information about each recreation site (including photos, videos, historical documents, printable U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps, and so on) and a place for visitors to post comments, upload their own photos of the park and ask questions. But to make this happen, the National Park Service and state recreation departments should enable other organizations to make use of their data, such as park information and locations, and provide the ability to link to online permit and reservation systems.
It’s time to take advantage of the power of technology to make government more open and less siloed. The challenge is not IT; the tools exist to make interacting with government relatively easy. The challenge is vision and leadership.