Can the US Government Use Open Innovation to Save $1 Billion?

“Now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.” President Obama, January 26, 2011

The budget crunch is currently consuming all parts of government. CFOs and other executives are searching for ways to deliver their mission at reduced budgets—to do “more with less”. Many programs and services are required by law to exist, so budget cuts aren’t as easy as they may seem; the government will still need to provide a level of service and degree of public value to meet their statutory responsibilities despite less money to do so. Thus the need for innovation—both static (doing what we do today better) and dynamic (doing completely new things that didn’t exist before)—is of paramount importance. This post will explore how the forthcoming Open Innovation Strategy from the White House may (or may not) help focus the power of innovation on the budget woes of the United States to realize enormous budget savings and increase public value.

From Open Government to Open Innovation…

As I wrote last year, “Open Government is not dead (sorry Vivek). Open Government initiatives are only part of what is required to cultivate an innovative agency culture. They are an important part of a much larger innovation ecosystem, but only one part nonetheless. To cultivate a culture of innovation, the broader picture of what “innovation” means to the Federal Government is critical to understand.” Thus, especially in this budget environment, it’s refreshing to see the conversation about open government being reframed to “open innovation” at the White House.

On Friday, June 10th, CTO Aneesh Chopra and CIO Vivek Kundra as well as other Administration officials, hosted an Open Innovation / Champions of Change event at the White House where, among other things, they previewed the President’s forthcoming Open Innovation Strategy. There were many interesting takeaways from the event but this post will focus on “previewing” Open Innovation and what this new strategy might mean in this era of reduced budgets. (For additional press coverage see White House Honors Unsung Open Data App Developers from Government Technology).

In his opening remarks, Aneesh described the White House’s soon to be released Open Innovation Strategy as integrating the principles of open government and innovation work previously done by the administration. In short,

Strategy for American Innovation + The Open Government Directive = Open Innovation

He outlined the following principles of Open Innovation:

  • “Innovation should help the government spend money smarter
  • Innovation should improve customer service and get the government to where the people are
  • Innovation should be integrated in delivering new and old products and services
  • Innovation isn’t just about the outcomes, it’s about the process”

Furthermore, he identified four key policy levers for open innovation and some examples where they are already working in government:

  • Democratize government data: For example, the USPTO has partnered with Google at no-cost to provide access to a 3+ terabyte patent database, encouraging reuse of data. This database is indexed on a clean tech marketplace to a taxonomy of 246 clean tech categories, facilitating capital investment. This green technology initiative, based on government data, connects investors to relevant IP.
  • Encourage market transparency: For example, HHS has created a catalogue of public and private insurance plans that includes denial and pricing information to help people make better choices about their insurance (http://www.healthcare.gov/). This site provides transparency on price, measures on denials, and “surcharges” to ensure robust competition.
  • Cultivate innovation ecosystem: One example is the DARPA “crowd designed” combat support vehicle. The winner was awarded a contract and the first was slated to be produced in June. Another interesting example occurred last year when a White House rep attended a “gaming” conference and brought a gaming company’s attention to some of the government’s open data. As a result, a new version of an EA snowboarding game will include mountains that are built from NASA’s mountain topography dataset. (Cool!)
  • Create capacity for innovation: For example, VA’s “blue button” is now being replicated by Aetna and Walgreens. The government set an example/best practice that the private sector is adopting. What's neat about blue button is that it's spurred an autonomous co-creation environment - one that unlocks new kinds of public value for NOT ONLY veterans, but now for society as a whole.

These experiments demonstrate the open innovation has REAL potential to create public value. Thus, I’m excited for the open innovation strategy to be released in the coming months—it is a necessary next step in the evolution of open government. However, what’s NOT been articulated as clearly as it needs to be is HOW open innovation will help government spend money smarter and better partner to deliver services during a time of reduced budgets. That’s where some of the other discussion at the event comes in…

Saving money through innovation…

To me, the potential for this new strategy was articulated best by Bruce Brown, Chief Technology Officer, Proctor and Gamble (P&G), a panel member later in the event. Bruce told a concrete story about how P&G’s investment in innovation has saved P&G billions, increased shareholder value, and increased revenues. Bruce spoke about how the culture of P&G had always developed everything “inside” but there was recognition at the top that an insular approach would not maintain an innovative edge in an increasingly competitive market. So in 2003 they created the “connect and develop” open innovation program with a goal of 50% of ALL innovations having an external consultation component. This was a radical shift for their culture.

However, the shift towards looking outside seriously impacted their bottom line. For projects with an external component, shareholder value has generally doubled to tripled as compared to projects that don’t have an external component. But this new commitment did cost them some upfront investment. The shift required fundamental changes to the way the company operates, including IT systems, incentive schemes, etc. Additionally, they created an $85M corporate innovation fund to invest in new innovations. However, P&G has realized some concrete savings through these investments in innovation; through looking outside their walls for new ideas (in licensing) P&G partnered with Los Alamos labs to license reliability engineering technology, which has saved them $1B over the last few years. That’s not pocket change. This example demonstrates that open innovation can save real money.

Achieving public value through innovation…

So how can government learn from P&G’s approach to innovation and address its immediate (and long term) need to “do more with less”? If P&G’s ultimate metric is shareholder value to determine the benefit of their innovation program, how should government work to tie innovation programs to public value, the ultimate metric for government? The Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany has been thinking through how to tie public value to open government programs. Do you think their logic could also apply to open innovation programs?

As most of us would agree, innovation isn’t only about releasing data—it’s about doing existing things better, inventing completely new high value services that make others obsolete and fundamentally rethinking how the government works with partners to provide public value. Thus, this event also got me and some colleagues (including the always brilliant Dan Morgan @dsmorgan77) thinking about how different open innovation really is from other public value optimization frameworks. Because, at the end of the day, open innovation is about producing more public value at lower cost to the government, right?

For example, take Bill Eggers and Steven Goldsmith’s book Governing by Network and Deloitte’s recent report on Creating Public Value by Releasing the Power of Cross Boundary Collaboration. Co-creation, collaboration, and leveraging networks are not new concepts—they’ve been studied extensively for years. Thus when reflecting on the forthcoming open innovation strategy, a few fundamental questions occur to me:

  • Could open innovation just be as a new buzz word for more effective co-delivery and co-creation?
  • Or is open innovation itself in fact a new way to co-create and collaborate to create public value?
  • What makes open innovation different from the co-creation, if at all?

I hope to do a much more in-depth analysis of these differences once the strategy is released in full, soon.

Some new trends are likely coming…

What open innovation will force us all to think about is new ways for government to do business. Combined with reduced budgets that won’t support large pilot projects, the tactics we see the government using to provide services and value might shift significantly. For example, we could see several structural changes to the way the government partners:

  • We could see a rise in Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) for service provision. These could both be no-cost partnerships (like the USPTO partnership highlighted above) or 30-year concession contracts for infrastructure construction (see this former posting of mine on infrastructure development PPPs)
  • We could see a rise in the use of loans and leveraging instead of or in addition to grants. This may change delivery structures. A guaranteed loan isn't the same as a grant. Loans are largely re-paid; grants aren’t.

Regardless of the structural changes, we will be forced to do more with less. Several agencies have already shown that public value can be achieved through open innovation and P&G has shown that it’s also an effective tool for budget savings. The basic question whose answer remains to be seen is: how will government leverage open innovation as part of its toolbox to create public value?

Ms. Gustetic is the associate director for the Strategic Engagement and Communications at POCG. Ms. Gustetic’s experience has focused on the public sector with concentrations on open government, innovation, public private partnerships, grants and prize management, and technology policy. You can reach her at @jenngustetic or jgustetic@phaseonecg.com.