Technology Innovation at Federal Agencies

Published: August 31, 2016

Big DataCloud ComputingInformation TechnologyInnovation

Think federal agencies don’t innovate? Don’t believe the hype.

Declaring the need for innovation in government is something we hear all the time. Federal agencies need to adopt new technologies more rapidly to achieve efficiencies and to reduce costs. Innovation will bring citizens closer to their government by ensuring transparency and access. Et cetera, et cetera. We also hear all that time that federal agencies are hopeless laggards clinging to legacy systems still using Cobol and requiring the expertise of technicians approaching retirement. Underlying these claims are two assumptions – that innovation is something federal agencies just don’t do and that federal agencies are not adopting emerging technologies fast enough. What the heck is wrong with them?

Agencies often fail to innovate in ways that can benefit them. No argument here. The depiction of agencies as technology dinosaurs, however, is not entirely accurate. The available evidence shows that despite agency shortcomings innovation is alive and well across both the Civilian and Defense sectors of the federal government.

Consider the adoption of big data solutions. The chart below illustrates big data solution adoption by the Civilian and Defense sectors between fiscal years 2010 and 2014. The metric used to chart adoption is the number of efforts in each sector that Deltek has managed to identify.

According to this data, the use of big data solutions has expanded tremendously over the last five years. In the Defense sector alone the use of big data solutions grew by more than 7,000%, from a measly 2 efforts in FY 2010 to 147 in FY 2014. Keep in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The number of big data efforts begun, piloted, and/or underway is undoubtedly much larger than what is shown here. Growth in the Civilian sector has been even more robust at more than 11,000% over the same period.

Now have a look at cloud computing adoption over the same period. The metric used is the same – the number of contracted efforts that Deltek could identify over the same five year period from FY 2010 to FY 2014.

Not too shabby, right? Progress could be better, particularly in the Defense sector, but growth of 700% and 435%, respectively, really is impressive.

The lesson here is that “innovation” is in the eye of the beholder. In 2010, federal agencies employed big data solutions in a small number of identified efforts. By FY 2014, that number had risen to 371. Cloud efforts rose in parallel over the same period from 53 altogether in FY 2010 to 310 in FY 2014. These are emerging technology areas where agencies are investing. These are also areas of technology innovation. Industry knows this and that’s why most vendors have either cloud or big data offerings or both. Can agencies innovate more? They sure can. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook the ways they are innovating now.