Mar 292017

On Monday President Trump signed into existence the White House Office of American Innovation, an agency intended to “bring together the best ideas from Government, the private sector, and other thought leaders to ensure that America is ready to solve today’s most intractable problems.”

While appointing his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to run the office is less than ideal, an agency that brainstorms ideas to transform government isn’t a bad idea.

There are limitations though, former Obama Administration tech official Tom Cochrane warns government is a very different beast from running a campaign.

In the government you say ‘I have a problem’ and it’s ‘let’s write out your requirements, here’s your six month procurement process and you can only use these thirty-three vendors who may be substandard or no good and the only reason they are on the list is because they understand how the contracting process works.’

That is just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges you face when you go into government.

Cochrane was only talking about managing websites and software while Trump and Kushner’s objectives are clearly more ambitious and, dare one suggest, somewhat driven by the neo-Liberal ideology that the private sector and markets hold all the answers to humanity’s’ problems.

How radically reforming government will go under the Trump Administration remains to be seen although the early failure with health insurance changes doesn’t bode well.

While the UK’s Government Digital Service and Australia’s Digital Transformation Office were largely confined to changing the delivery of public sector services, their remit seems somewhat closer to Kushner’s so it’s instructive reading the lessons from Paul Shetler who worked at both agencies.

His view is in the United States there’s a lot of opportunity on the digital transformation front.

They do have a lot of potential there. I do think the new administration is more likely to do something big to fix things than perhaps the Obama Administration was, because they are talking about national infrastructure.

If you to the United States it’s shocking, the physical level infrastructure is falling apart and on a digital level things are pretty much the same, if you look at the government websites many of them look like they are from the 1990s and they all look and act differently.

The US though has its own complexities with government being far more devolved and ‘hands off’ than the UK or Australian Federal governments, not to mention the tricky political environment the Trump Administration is faced with.

Possibly the biggest challenge Kushner’s office will face is the question of leadership. Shetler points out pushing change through government agencies requires decisive action.

In the UK, we didn’t focus on consensus we focused on getting things done. When I first met with Francis Maude he said ‘this is not a change management process – this is transformation.”

One of the major reasons why the UK was a successful as they were was because Francis Maude was the minister for five years. It became clear he was going to see this through and if you were going to fight, you were going to lose. People got into line.

So for the Trump Administration and Jared Kushner, the success of the Office of American Innovation is going to lie on how well they can lead and drive the process.

Given Donald Trump’s temperament and way of doing things, there’s no doubt he’ll take decisive action however bringing along disparate stakeholders and sectors of the community – not to mention deeply embedded interest groups – is going to take more than quickly Executive Orders or 3am tweets.

As Tom Cochrane and Paul Shetler observe, changing the direction of governments is not an easy task and it takes persistence, determination and vision.

History will be watching how well Trump and Kushner succeed.

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