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Obama Administration Pushes Forward On Innovation Throughout Agencies

First Posted: 07/18/11 05:39 PM ET Updated: 09/25/11 07:36 PM ET

Underscoring the raging debate over the size and scope of federal government is a broad national perception that the country's government is bloated, wasteful and bureaucratic. But as budget hawks and juiced-up conservatives charge forward with this narrative, several federal agencies have embarked on a quest to streamline and innovate -- partnering with a cutting edge firm to transform the way government works, from the inside out.

In particular, federal agencies including the Office of Personnel Management, the General Services Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have recently reached beyond the Beltway to seek the advice and services of IDEO, a 20 year-old design firm known more for its cutting-edge work for corporate heavyweights like Nike, Samsung and Levi's.

While the specific nature of the work ranges from agency to agency, the firm has broadly been enlisted to help decode who, precisely, these federal agencies are trying to reach -- and how best to do so.

Through in-depth interviews, IDEO gathers intelligence on the so-called "human element" -- whether that's Americans trying to understand the nation's healthcare laws or looking for government jobs or operating federal buildings. With that research in hand, the firm works alongside each agency to determine the best way to communicate with this intended audience, including developing the technology itself.

A quarter of IDEO's staff is comprised of anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists -- experts in human behavior. "The primary work we do begins with people," said partner Fred Dust, who leads much of the firm's government work. "What people need and want -- and then translating that into what kind of service, technology or experience you should create."

The collaboration has borne out different results.

At the Office of Personnel Management, senior adviser Matt Collier explained that the goal of IDEO's work was to answer the question of "How might we elevate civil service?"

While Collier acknowledged that, "On the surface, it might feel like a feel-good, warm 'n' fuzzy exercise, I would argue that there's an imperative for this. If you want to address the country's challenges seriously -- healthcare, education, national security and the like -- we need a strong civil service. When we talk about getting the best and brightest, that’s what we're after."

Initially, IDEO conducted its own research for the project, captured in a series of video vignettes, which, according to Collier, explored the "human element. If you're a truly talented person, what would it take to get you to join the civil service and work for America?"

This research was, in turn, used as inspiration in a design session held jointly by OPM employees and IDEO. "You can't just impose things," said Collier. "You've really got to build a movement."

Of the findings that emerged from the session, Collier said that the biggest takeaway was the concept of a "branded house versus a house of brands."

"Initially, there was some [thinking] that we could bring back JFK's notion of the civil service," said Collier. "But we learned that it's more about the brick and mortar brands of the agencies: the individual missions and the work that each agency is doing." From this, he explained, the OPM knew it had to "focus on empowering agencies to sell themselves as employers, rather than looking at a blanket approach to elevating civil service."

"There is no 'government,'" said Dust. "There is no one thing that basically stands for it. While people may respond negatively to the term 'government,' people respond quite well to the sub-jobs that actually fall within it. Who hates park rangers? Nobody on earth. Let's stop talking about it on the macro level and talk about the things that are the real missions that people really care about."

Such individualized, agency-focused methodology has been integrated into the federal recruiting process with the development of new online tools -- like the USAJobsRecruit site -- and the reform of human resources management within agency-specific programs, including the Presidential Management Fellows program.

At the General Services Administration -- which provides centralized procurement for the federal government, including products, services and facilities -- IDEO worked to help integrate technology into the agency's new, energy-efficient smart buildings.

The result, according to Frank Santella, director of the agency's smart buildings, was developing a central "dashboard" for the smart buildings -- akin to ones found in hybrid cars.

To develop the dashboard, IDEO conducted interviews and delivered an "experience blueprint" detailing what information is necessary to help building staff better react to and manage the information being given to them in the smart buildings.

The first dashboard prototype was installed in the San Francisco Federal Building in December of 2010, and, among other things, highlights the building’s energy and water conservation. By making information accessible in what Melton termed "a relatable manner," employees are able to see "how are we progressing… towards these green goals."

"We have some really big goals around zero environmental footprint, energy reduction, sustainability and green practices," said Santella. "At the end of this prototyping, our goal is to replicate it throughout our inventory."

The GSA has set a goal of installing such dashboards in 200 of its most energy-intensive properties over the next four to five years.

While IDEO has additional projects underway at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, the current battle over the size and scope of government is likely to continue -- at least until the end of the current administration. Which begs the question: will the drive towards innovation continue when the Oval Office has a new occupant? If not, just how much reform is possible in such a relatively short period of time?

Dust -- and many of the agency representatives interviewed -- pressed the fact that the work they are doing is collaborative, the ideologies not driven by IDEO or any one party. In this way, "innovation" becomes less an administration-driven mandate and more natural function of each respective agency, woven into its DNA.

"Nobody will ever take anything on and keep it," said Dust. "After the designers have left the room, if people feel like they've build it and they own it -- then they stick with it."

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