Innovation: A Cornerstone of Improving Government Service Delivery

2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence

Innovation is a critical component in the improvement of federal policies, practices, and programs. It is about finding transformative, evidence-informed practices to positively impact people and communities across the country with data-backed solutions. Innovative practices that, for example, improve federal service and program delivery, can help reduce and alleviate barriers to access that have a disproportionate impact on underserved communities according to a July 2021 report from the White House Office of Management and Budget. The innovation criteria in Results for America’s Invest in What Works Federal Standards of Excellence (Federal Standard of Excellence) assesses federal agencies’ ability to foster innovation by:

7.1 Engaging agency leadership in innovation efforts, including hiring a chief innovation officer or creating an office for innovation;

7.2 Creating processes and programs that accelerate innovation (through prizes and challenges, behavioral science trials, innovation labs/accelerators, demonstration projects or waivers); and

7.3 Evaluating innovations to build and generate evidence.

Investment and prioritization in innovation from agency leadership can support building a results-focused organizational culture. This requires dedicated staff members with the sole responsibility spurring innovative efforts. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) appointed a Chief Innovation Officer to advocate for innovation of development and national security strategies across agencies, the federal government, and the international community. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) established a similar Office of Innovation in 2019, led by the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Innovation, to advance innovation in housing technology and discuss barriers and opportunities to innovation. The office is developing a second Innovative Housing Showcase for 2021 with interagency participation.

Beyond staff dedicated to fostering innovation, agencies and departments can leverage their grant programs to promote innovative practices. AmeriCorps continues to learn from its evidence-based planning grant program which awards grants to organizations that develop new, evidence-based national service models. Additionally, AmeriCorps funds research grantees to engage community residents and leaders in the development of new and innovative national service projects. The Administration for Community Living (ACL) promotes innovation by requiring all program offices to explain how the funding proposals will identify innovative practices. These included the Innovations in Nutrition Programs and Services — Demonstration, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, and Grants to Enhance State Adult Protective Services — Demonstration which addresses gaps and challenges in state adult protection services systems through innovations and improvements in practice, services, data collection, and reporting.

Additionally, there are entire grant programs designed to scale innovative practices though tiered funding models. The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program is the department’s primary innovation program for K–12 education. EIR grants are focused on validating and scaling promising, evidence-based practices. Lessons learned from the EIR program have been shared across the agency to inform programs, including formula grants, and better serve students.

In addition to scaling innovative practices, the federal government should evaluate the efforts to generate and build evidence of effectiveness. Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) is USAID’s tiered, evidence-driven open innovation program. It awards grants for innovative solutions to development problems. The DIV model is designed to source breakthrough solutions, minimize risk, and maximize impact by funding according to outcomes and milestones. It also rigorously evaluates impact and cost-effectiveness while scaling proven solutions. Since 2010, DIV has invested more than $129 million in over 200 innovations in 46 countries, improving 55 million lives globally. The Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) also works to ensure that innovative programs are thoroughly evaluated and continuously monitored to determine if action is needed to course-correct. In FY20, MCC conducted its first impact evaluation of an institutional reform program with the publication of the evaluation for the Indonesia Procurement Modernization Project. This project was specifically designed as a pilot with the evaluation results being used to determine further scale.

As agencies and departments continue to invest in innovation, it is imperative that they take racial equity into consideration when evaluating and scaling their practices and programs. Reducing racial inequities should be used by agencies as a north star, informing logic models and design to ensure that programs and policies measurably deliver better results for underserved and communities of color. Investing in innovation is an important piece of the puzzle, however, it is only one piece.

In response to the administration’s executive order on advancing racial equity in government, the Office of Management and Budget acting director identified four key takeaways in a July 2021 report: Study to Identify Methods to Assess Equity: Report to the President. The federal government could leverage innovative practices to address the gaps identified in the report, including reducing administrative burden that disproportionately underserved communities; boosting participation and access to stakeholder engagement activities to better co-design and meet needs of residents and communities; and reducing barriers to participation in government procurement processes to thereby create more inclusive and equitable opportunities to resources. All of these pieces require agencies to innovate their practices for equitable outcomes in their practices.

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