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May 11, 2021

4 Low-Cost Ways to Foster Government Innovation

4 mins read

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Written by

Jaap Dekkinga

Sr. Enterprise Agile Transformation Lead

If you’re in the Federal Government, innovation can feel like a real challenge. But there are creative ways Federal agencies can innovate, learn, and introduce new approaches. You don’t always have to pay a high price tag to innovate effectively. Here are some proven approaches:

Get external partners to focus on your mission goals

Large organizations frequently use startups and innovators to deliver solutions rapidly by offering contracts and/or distribution platforms. For example, the IRS gains an advantage from TurboTax and other similar tools that allow people to submit their taxes online. Another good example is NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. CRS allows NASA to resupply the International Space Station using commercial spacecraft operated by SpaceX and OrbitalATK. The first CRS contracts were signed in 2008 and awarded $1.6 billion to SpaceX for twelve cargo Dragon flights and $1.9 billion to Orbital Sciences for eight Cygnus flights, covering deliveries until 2016.

Incentivize innovation through shared benefit

Share-in-Savings (SIS) is a contracting vehicle for government agencies that allows contractors to assume more up-front risk in exchange for a share of the long-term savings. Under such contracts, the Government can work with contracting firms to “improve mission-related or administrative processes” or to “accelerate the achievement of its mission.” HHS might use such a vehicle, for example, to spur the development of Artificial Intelligence tools that can flag fraudulent use of health care funding. The contractor would assume the initial risk by creating, testing, and validating the tool in exchange for a share of the funding saved by its use. HHS would benefit because the tool could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its oversight efforts.

Host challenging competitions

Startups, universities, and innovators can be motivated to solve challenges through competitions and the prizes and recognition they provide. Kaggle is a platform used for big data competitions. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used Kaggle to host a competition to improve the accuracy of threat recognition and offered a prize of $1.5M.

In 2019, the Department of Defense (DoD) hosted an AI challenge, xView2. The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) invited experts to automate post-natural disaster damage assessment using satellite imagery. Computer vision algorithms and AI analyzed before and after images to determine the extent of damage so that resources could be routed to the area of greatest need. Excella’s solution, Eye in the Sky, performed quite well.

Mike Kaul, the DIU’s AI Portfolio Director explained, “DIU’s goal in hosting this challenge is to enlist the global community of machine learning experts to tackle a critically hard problem: detecting key objects in overhead imagery in context and assessing damage in a disaster situation.”

Copy disruptive innovators and use open-source software

Using Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) has numerous benefits. When used properly, it can:

  • Accelerate the development of new solutions
  • Improve code quality
  • Enhance collaboration between and among agencies, contractors, and the public
  • Improve security
  • Encourage reuse

Using a FOSS approach allows agencies to have greater control over their software systems and reduces the risk of vendor lock-in. However, there are risks. One of the most significant is that copying innovative approaches without understanding the customer need can lead to unsatisfactory solutions.

18F’s Federal Agency Field Guide recommends defaulting to FOSS and contains some very effective tips for how federal agencies should approach its use. Working in the open allows more immediate and valuable feedback from stakeholders, encourages other technologists to contribute, and tends to attract the best software developers. FOSS also can provide greater security than commercial solutions. The Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security have all used FOSS advantageously.

18F concludes that “The public funds government projects, and the government should allow the public to use what it has paid for. The public – and other agencies – should be able to leverage these investments for their own purposes. Re-use reduces redundancies across the public sector for similar investments and facilitates innovation in the private sector.”


Innovation in the Federal Government doesn’t have to be expensive and difficult. These proven approaches can spur innovation at low cost. With our background in transformative technology solutions, Excella can help you use them to accomplish your mission.

Innovation in the Federal Government doesn’t have to be expensive and difficult.

Contact us to learn more!

Jaap Dekkinga

Sr. Enterprise Agile Transformation Lead

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