Open Source Principles for Unleashing Innovation Within Government

community meetingThe dynamic state of our economy favors an entrepreneurial orientation less interested in trying to pre-assess where the next innovative solution will come from and more interested in putting a great many ideas to the test with sophisticated horsepower.  In recent months, a confluence of events has reaffirmed the strategic merit of open source tenets as a valuable foundation for convening government, industry, and community organizations in pursuit of innovative solutions to public needs. By aligning with the trajectory of our times and enlisting open source tenets, government organizations may craft more efficient, affordable and participatory frameworks to increase their mission-driven impact.

Government Approach Pre-Open Innovation With Open Innovation Mindset
Open source means… “free software” Creating conditions that favor innovation
Work with experts by… Hiring them full-time to work in separate, functional silos Attracting the best and brightest minds to projects for which they’re micro-specifically suited
Publish data by… Making it available upon request according to letter of Freedom of Information Act Default in online, liquid (searchable, indexed, ready-to use), machine-readable formats
Innovation means… Original invention A new model that adds value, building on vast networks of previous research and accomplishments
Development is… Phased-in with exact requirements set prior to implementation.  Focus is on documenting that specs have been met. High velocity and adaptive to change, with crowdsourcing and tight feedback loops focused on continuous improvement
To solve problems… Intellectual property is developed and guarded from competition. IP is frequently exchanged; and cross-functional communication, cohorts and pairing build knowledge across domains
Organizational structure is… Fixed and hierarchical Flat and nimble
The economy is… Product-based Ideas-based
OVERALL Gov’t develops and provides software product solutions. Gov’t is a platform for managing innovation.
Fig. 1 – A Comparison of Openness and Innovation in the Public Sector. Open source and open innovation are terms frequently used interchangeably. This table illustrates open innovation’s broader meaning and potential impact.

In the context of a crowded marketplace where increasingly similar technology products have ever-shortened life cycles, government organizations risk obsolescent IT systems and unwarranted expense when they focus on single-source, proprietary solutions which must be maintained in a closed environment.  The public sector is, however,  uniquely positioned to embrace the cutting-edges of open source when they provide the kind of purposeful forward thinking that helps entire technology ecosystems align community decision-making towards the pivotal concepts that fuel innovation.

Transparency and participation represent new benchmarks for success in an open environment.  The most pro-active government organizations are taking concrete steps to see that these efficiencies are spirited forward as part of any new policy or initiative.  In a new ideas-based economy formed from strategic partnerships, organizations are seeking to collaborate whenever possible while competing when necessary.

To leverage principles of open innovation, government organizations must first equip themselves to be outward facing and highly responsive to change.  Then they can prioritize strategically from an array of potential opportunities that are free-flowing, not bottlenecked or screened by one role or department.  Meanwhile, they are preparing the communities they serve to do the same.

Public needs are fulfilled when innovative solutions are deployed that have measurable economic and social impact and represent comprehensively the means to prototype, test and scale up new models for exchanging value.  The “opened up” government organization embraces an emphasis on sharing and perfecting results in ways that enhance all parties involved.  To spearhead the quest for best possible solutions, government is now cast in three roles that simultaneously support and lead stakeholders:

Community Convener and Manager

Homogeneous technology platforms do not adequately support innovation.  Community platforms are required on which to set and compare ideas and expose them to rigorous debate.  When stakeholders within a technology ecosystem come together, their respective needs and contributions become mutually visible.

Expert workshops become places to pressure-test assumptions.  Entities large and small can address each other for purposes of building 360 degrees of perspective around common issues, identifying the strongest emergent solutions meriting pursuit and then ratifying requirements.

The government organization’s main “product” now is managing how the ecosystem comes together, including the delivery of community-formulated plans and well-articulated advantages for those who opt-in and contribute.   In an open source environment, issues can be addressed swiftly and powerfully, sometimes in a matter of weeks compared to the years it would otherwise take in a more traditionally “closed” environment.  By serving as a smart glue that can hold otherwise disparate stakeholders together in one vital conversation on a national platform, the public sector is no longer developing its own software solutions (which would be inefficient at best) but providing the appropriate ongoing structure and consistent leadership to unleash innovation and integrate entrepreneurial  approaches at every level on which a technology ecosystem can possibly hope to function and communicate.

Curator of Information and Knowledge

Government organizations operating according to open source tenets provide liquid information about community preferences as they are revealed in the marketplace and contextualized by a host of quicksilver micro-climates.   With data liberated in abundance, frontier problems can get defined, stretch goals set, and promising programs validated by empirically documented need.

Serving as a smart repository of previously-reported knowledge in easily retrievable formats, the government can assist in customizing and localizing content for any interested user.  Promoting re-use of high-value data not only creates as many potential commercial applications as can be imagined and engineered, but also provides a more effective base from which to craft public policy and publish community best practices.   This wealth of data belongs to the public sector, and its availability (with machine-readability now standardized as a default setting) can help springboard strategically important projects and avoid the unnecessary waste inherent in duplicative planning and analysis.

Arbiter of Standards

Government-sponsored forums can not only spark dialogue which would not otherwise occur; it can also manage the agenda that stems from a convening afterwards, including setting standards for industry.  The private sector needs “rules of the road” to provide guidance where technologies are emerging, relationships are fledgling and new systems and frameworks are still being hammered out.   The next disruptive innovation becomes much more achievable when government organizations seek to engage technology communities in identifying common objectives and then work with them to adopt certain practices, meet specific technical requirements and implement quality assurance standards.

Community convenings and the attendant stream of associated feedback become the medium through which standards emerge and get ratified.  With those standards in place, core certification programs can be established and the market can be assured of compatibilities which can spur private investment by balancing risk.

A high degree of self-organization tends to occur in the open source environment, and technology communities can become characterized by passion and a commitment to viewpoints that approaches evangelist zeal.  By serving as a smart standard-bearer, government organizations ensure participants make necessary compromises in order to stay synchronized on the platform they have created to accomplish common objectives.

Recapping the New Normal: Government as a Purveyor of Innovative Solutions

While appointed Innovation Officials and “entrepreneurs-in-residence“ proliferate within government organizations (the most successful accompanied by internal strategies to attract necessary senior level buy-in), open government is using the benefit of its unique positioning and eagle-eye vantage point to promote and leverage meritocracy within technology ecosystems.   New, open approaches contribute to the achievement of stretch goals in key economic sectors while helping to ensure that public investment is matched with fully-realized outcomes.

Success in purveying innovative solutions means that entrepreneurs and would-be innovators learn to self-identify as part of an army of change agents who view government organizations as trusted managers of an environment that is friendly to their aspirations, managers well-versed in their methodologies and interested in circulating results.   To win this credibility and stay relevant to the cause of unleashing innovation, government organizations must be able to deliver on the necessary knowledge management infrastructure for information-sharing and collaboration, tools for development and performance measurement, and rewards for meeting and surpassing benchmarks   This new set of roles makes stakeholders’ complementary contributions and expertise more visible to one another, encouraging new forms of productive partnership at the vanguard of a new economy.