Google Innovation Lab Participants Hope to Reinvent Government Services

Google brings its audacious moonshot philosophy for invention to government.

by / May 8, 2015
James Waterman, Google's regional manager for state and local government, stands at the California Department of Health and Human Services 2015 Datafest event in Sacramento, Calif., where participants discussed innovative open data practices. Jason Shueh

The first two participants in Google's new Government Innovation Lab say they hope to do nothing less than attempt to completely re-imagine local government services.

“We don’t know what the end product is going to be — just like in a hackathon,” said Tim Dupuis, CIO of Alameda County, Calif. “But we know that the talent we’re bringing to the table, both from the county and from Google, that the solutions are just going to be something spectacular.”

California's Alameda and Kern counties are the first two governments chosen for the Innovation Lab. Google made the announcement in Reno, Nev., April 30 at the Government Social Media Conference & Expo. Four more local jurisdictions will be added to the program later this year.

Alameda and Kern will select 50 leaders to participate in the initiative. Chromebooks will be assigned to each based on project roles. They'll be organized into teams focused on five challenges. As facilitator, Google has set a six-week innovation curriculum for coaching and collaboration before its developers are sent in to deploy solutions 90 days later.

The goal isn't to create new apps or use Google software, said Jason Wiebe, an administrative analyst who is coordinating the lab for Kern County. “It’s about coming in with a blank slate and creating something new — whether that’s technology driven or not.”

Shooting for the moon

It might be said Google’s secret for innovation is a few steps of strategy coupled with giant leaps of faith. 

It’s a concept Astro Teller, director at the Google[x] lab for research and development lab, struggles to communicate. “When I tell you what the secret is you’ll want to believe it," Teller says in one of his talks. "But you’ll want to believe it like you want to believe in Santa Claus.”

Audacious, yet proven more than a few times, the concept is what the Mountain View company has dubbed “moonshots,” or “10x thinking,” ambitious projects that — quite literally — aim for exponential gains. This sort of innovative thinking will be applied to the Government Innovation Lab.

James Waterman, Google’s regional manager for state and local government, called the lab an initiative to foster innovators and institutionalize moonshot thinking in government. Ripped from the playbook of Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the theory supposes innovation can be revolutionary when supercharged with intensive ideation and experimentation.

The ambitious recipe might easily be dismissed if it came from anywhere else than Google. The company holds an irrefutable track record for innovation. Autonomous cars, orbiting Internet connectivity balloons, and a line of dominant consumer products — like Android and Google Apps — all act as validations.

Further, Google[x] is rife with moonshot projects of its own. It touts drones that can detect gastrointestinal cancers, a reactor that produces energy from nuclear waste, nanotechnology to repair eyesight and these are just a few.  

“I think institutionalizing that kind of a thought process is important to moving things forward,” said Wiebe.

A blank canvas

When Waterman spoke of the lab’s strategy he compared the process to starting with a blank canvas and using a full palette of modern tech and tactics to repaint government services. The methodology demands participants think beyond their current restraints. All the organizational structures, budgets and policies are put aside to probe for solutions of massive impact.

Brainstorming is repeated a multiplicity of times. Diversity is key; as is volume. Potential remedies are shot through Google’s next best practice, a rapid evaluation and sifting, where ideas — depending on promise — are saved or sliced.

At end of the six weeks, surviving solutions will be grounded to fit within a jurisdiction’s current workflows and resources, Dupuis said. “Google is then going to guide us in their approach to opening it up to the possible.”

Although projects are still open to change, the two counties already have narrowed down their initial sets of five.

Alameda will concentrate on education and jobs; safe communities; service improvements; emergency preparedness; and hunger, health and housing.

Kern will tackle economic development; battling recidivism; cultivating internal talent; workforce development; and improving or replacing the county’s legacy communications systems.

Going the distance

Both Alameda and Kern plan to evaluate the first fruits of the lab, gauging project outcomes and functionality. If projects happen to miss their 10x mark, Wiebe said it's all right as long as results make an impact. Ultimately both counties said the best measures of success will arrive when Google is long gone and officials are launching moonshots by themselves.

In Alameda, Dupuis says he views the Google Innovation Lab as both a culminating and catalyzing event. The partnership reflects a long-standing county history of civic hackathons, open data initiatives and technology advancements. It’s a buildup for Alameda’s forthcoming office of innovation, which will be launched sometime after the Google lab project ends.

“The timing is really perfect,” Dupuis said, “because we’ve gone through that progression, and we’re really teed up to taking it to the next level and have already committed to creating, within our county administrator’s office, an office of innovation.”

Kern also is considering an innovation office to leverage the experience, Wiebe said. And both counties want to bring new blood into leadership roles by inserting millennials into the innovation lab program.

“We think those that are newer might have a fresher perspective,” Wiebe said. “And so we wanted a good mix of millennials and to get their perspective on these issues, especially on branding for the county, and technology related aspects in our communication systems.”

County supervisors, department heads and internal subject matter experts will sit beside the millennials to add their own unique perspectives and give context for the ambitious new talent. Yet Wiebe said, the experience should serve as a safe haven for creative thinking as well.

“It gives them a safe place to promote a different way of thought, rather than the typical chain of command you might see in a typical government structure.”

 

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.