Want to Find Government Innovation? US Military is often leading the way.

When it comes to see what trends will impact government in 20-30 years I’m a big fan of watching the US military. They may do lot of things wrong but, when it comes to government, they are on the bleeding edge of being a “learning organization.” It often feels like they are less risk averse, more likely to experiment, and, (as noted) more likely to learn, than almost any government agency I can think of (hint, those things maybe be interconnected). Few people realize that to rise above Colonel in many military organizations, you must have at least a masters degree. Many complete PhDs. And these schools often turn into places where people challenge authority and the institution’s conventional thinking.

Part of it, I suspect, has to do with the whole “people die when you make mistakes” aspect of their work. It may also have to do with the seriousness with which they take their mandate. And part of it has to do with the resources they have at their disposal.

But regardless of the cause, I find they are often at the cutting edge of ideas in the public sector. For example, I can’t think of a government organization that empowers the lowest echelons of its employee base more than the US military. Their network centric vision of the world means those on the front lines (both literally and figuratively) are often empowered, trusted and strongly supported with tools, data and technology to make decisions on the fly. In an odd way, the very hierarchical system that the rest of government has been modeled on, has really transcended into something different. Still very hierarchical but, at the same time, networked.

Frankly, if a 1-800 call operator at Service Canada or the guy working at the DMV in Pasadena, CA (or even just their managers) had 20% of the autonomy of a US Sargent, I suspect government would be far more responsive and innovative. Of course, Service Canada or the California DMV would have to have a network centric approach to their work… and that’s a ways off since it demands serious cultural challenge, the hardest thing to shift in an org.

Anyways… long rant. Today I’m interested in another smart call the US military is making that government procurement departments around the world should be paying attention to (I’m especially looking at you Public Works – pushers of Beehive over GCPEDIA). This article, Open source helicopters trivialize Europe’s ODF troubles, on Computer World’s Public Sector IT blog outlines how the next generation of US helicopters will be built on an open platform. No more proprietary software that binds hardware to a particular vendor.

Money quote from the piece:

Weapons manufacturers and US forces made an unequivocal declaration for royalty-free standards in January through the FACE (Future Airborne Capabilities Environment) Consortium they formed in response to US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s call for a “common aircraft architecture and subsystems”.

“The FACE Standard is an open, nonproprietary technical specification that is publicly available without restrictive contracts, licensing terms, or royalties,” the Consortium announced from its base at The Open Group, the industry association responsible for the POSIX open Unix specification.

“In business terms, the open standards specified for FACE mean that programmers are freely able to use them without monetary remuneration or other obligation to the standards owner,” it said.

While business software producers have opposed governments that have tried to implement identical open standards policies with the claim it will handicap innovation and dampen competition, the US military is embracing open standards for precisely the opposite reasons.

So suddenly the we are going to have an open source approach to innovation and program delivery (helicopter manufacturing, operation and maintenance) at major scale. Trust me, if the US military is trying to do this with helicopters you can convert you proprietary intranet to a open source wiki platform. I can’t believe the complexity is as great. But the larger point here is that this approach could be used to think about any system a government wants to develop, from earthquake monitoring equipment to healthcare systems to transit passes. From a “government as a platform perspective” this could be a project to watch. Lots of potential lessons here.

3 thoughts on “Want to Find Government Innovation? US Military is often leading the way.

  1. Guest

    One thing about the military that is not common with other public sector organizations is that it can redistribute man power at the drop of the hat.  All it takes is a new set of orders.

    I’m not sure how much this contributes to the overall organization’s effectiveness but it can allow them to allocate resources much more quickly.

    Imagine two scenarios:

    1.  Military decides to move Unit A from Gagetown to Shilo in order to work closely with Unit B.

    2.  Government attempts to move department A from Ottawa to Vancouver.

    Which one will happen faster with less fuss?  Probably #1.

    1. David Eaves

      Very interesting comment. Part of this is definitely true. You have me thinking that one area the military can struggle with is re-allocating resource not by geography but by type. For example reducing or eliminating a class of weapons platforms (like submarines). But again, maybe they are better at it than the rest of government. Have to think about how one would assess that.


      1. Guest

        I think any organization will struggle with eliminating a class of platforms.  All of sudden you have a bunch of employees that are specifically trained who now have nowhere to apply that training.

        From a military perspective, no matter how networked it gets there is still the chain of command and everyone is used to “you will do as I say”.  There are no unions to submit grievances to etc.

        The place where the military succeeds is the fact that they attempt, and almost always succeed, to drill in a very specific work ethic and attitude.  This can make things inflexible but it is also a source of strength since new orders will be obeyed immediately and to the best of everyone’s ability.

        The only private sector example I can think of is a very large American company I used to work for.  Everything revolved around revenue.  Every decision you made was supposed to be tied to revenue – will my decision make the company money or cause it to lose money?  This lead to all kinds of innovation internally as people were constantly trying to automate processes in order to save time and therefore save money.


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