New Office of American Innovation Just Might Work

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By Cheryl Bolen

The newly established Office of American Innovation led by Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Donald Trump, could do a lot of good for government, so long as it puts agency expertise on par with business acumen, former government managers in the Obama administration told Bloomberg BNA.

“There are really powerful tools at the disposal of the president, but the concern I have is people with no experience in government aren’t going to know what they are,” Dan Tangherlini, former administrator of the General Services Administration, said.

Trump, in a sparsely worded memorandum on March 27, established the new office, naming nearly a dozen top White House officials to staff it with the help of private-sector leaders.

The OAI will make recommendations to the president on policies and plans designed to improve government operations and services, spur job creation and improve the quality of life for Americans now and in the future, the White House said in a statement.

“As a former leader in the private sector, I am proud to officially announce the White House Office of American Innovation, which will develop innovative solutions to many problems our country faces,” Trump said in the statement.

Business of Government

Assisting Kushner will be Gary Cohn, assistant to the president for economic policy; Andrew Bremberg, assistant to the president for domestic policy; Chris Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives; Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intergovernmental and technology initiatives; and Dina Powell, senior counselor to the president for economic initiatives.

“We have an opportunity to identify and implement solutions by combining internal resources with the private sector’s innovation and creativity, enabling the federal government to better serve Americans,” Kushner said in the statement.

OAI staff already have hosted listening and working sessions with more than 100 CEOs, other external thought leaders and senior government officials, the statement said. The OAI will create task forces to focus on initiatives such as:

  •  modernizing government services and information technology,
  •   improving services to veterans,
  •   creating transformative infrastructure projects,
  •   implementing regulatory and process reforms,
  •   creating manufacturing jobs,
  •   addressing the drug and opioid epidemic, and
  •   developing workforce of the future programs.

Optimistic Start

Tangherlini, now president of SeamlessDocs Federal, said a big mistake made by many administrations is forgetting that agencies are agents of the president.

Few people work in the White House, but there are 2.8 million federal workers, Tangherlini said. “And given good instructions to engage and given the opportunity, they will produce really powerful stuff,” he said.

Federal workers don’t like inefficient government, Tangerlini said. Rather, they’re the victims of outdated or poorly conceived processes, he said.

If the White House gives these workers the leadership, backing and investment to dramatically overhaul the way that work is done, and recognize it won’t happen in a day-and-a-half, it could have a meaningful, long-term positive impact on the government, Tangherlini said.

But There Are Conditions

Still, there are pitfalls.

Bringing in business leaders as advisers would be useful in terms of best practices, technology, purchasing and human resource systems, Tangherlini said.

“But then you also need to have some really talented people with experience in the system, to say, ‘OK, how do I convert those ideas into actual implementable policy in the agencies?’ ” he said.

To the extent that any administration has come in with a mandate for serious change, it would be this one, Tangherlini said.

“The question is: Are they familiar enough with the enterprise and the operations to know what those changes should be and how they should look and how they would work?” he said.

IT Is No Easy Answer

Often, an easy target is poor technology. Tangherlini, however, pointed to the New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. case study, where in 1984, General Motors handed over a low-performing plant in Fremont, Calif., to Toyota so that GM could learn how to fix it.

The plant started producing GM’s highest-quality product, with 95 percent of the same people, within two to three years of Toyota engaging in this joint effort, Tangherlini said.

The solution was not groundbreaking technology, but a great set of management practices that empowered people to understand what they were doing was producing a quality product and continuously asked them to improve the process and give feedback on the way it could be done better, Tangherlini said.

“You have to do the hard work of thinking about what it is you’re actually doing, how you actually do it, and what it will take to actually make it better,” Tangherlini said. “Once you do that, then you can say, now where can we apply technology to make the process better?” he said.

Precedent for Success

There’s a lot of precedent for an office like the OAI to be set up in the White House to work across government, to position, catalyze and get momentum on these types of transformations, said Danny Werfel, former controller at the Office of Management and Budget and now director at the Boston Consulting Group.

A good precedent in the Obama administration was the White House Digital Service, which sought to pair the country’s top technology talent with the best public servants, to improve the usefulness and reliability of the country’s most important digital services, Werfel said.

“It’s very impactful to have an office emanating out of the White House, in particular one that has a high-profile leader,” Werfel said.

While not a perfect analogy, President Barack Obama put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of Recovery Act implementation, which had a significant impact on making sure the right people from the agencies came to the table to solve implementation challenges, Werfel said.

“It made it a priority for the agencies, and that’s one of the key ingredients of driving action,” he said.

Change Is Hard

Another key to success is persistence. “It requires an extraordinary amount of political capital and relentless pursuit of making these changes,” Werfel said.

A lot of stakeholders in government are motivated to prevent change, Werfel said. Congressional committees of jurisdiction could see their power reduced if an agency is moved or eliminated, he said.

Other stakeholders include government organizations, workers and unions, citizens, companies and potentially international interests, all of which have questions and issues, Werfel said.

In Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, he called for, but was ultimately unsuccessful in getting, the authority to reorganize the federal government.

“We live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV,” Obama said in 2011.

“There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports,” Obama said. “There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Cheryl Bolen in Washington at cbolen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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