After setting up an innovation hub at CISA, Sabra Horne wrote a how-to book for other government organizations.
by Michael Bold
Two years into her stint working for the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency, Sabra Horne’s boss asked her what innovation would look like at CISA.
“The goal was to really figure out how do we bring in new capabilities, do things differently in a way that would help us get our mission accomplished much more efficiently, effectively—and I’ll be honest, just less painfully,” she said in an October 2022 interview with Army AL&T.
The mission of CISA—a component agency, along with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and five others within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—is as vital as it is daunting. It’s the operational lead for .gov cybersecurity and coordinator of the nation’s private sector cyber defense and emergency communications, as well as being responsible for securing critical infrastructure against threats. And with just 2,400 employees (2,200 in 2019, when Horne began working on the idea), CISA was limited in how much it could ask of its workforce in creating an innovation hub. “You can’t ask these people who are working so very hard to do additional things,” she told Army AL&T. “So how am I going to get resources to help us do things differently?”
The answer for CISA, she discovered, was to pursue partnerships within DHS and throughout government, especially with DOD—the Defense Innovation Unit, NavalX and AFWERX, the premiere innovation efforts of DOD, the Navy and the Air Force, respectively—and with external partners such as BMNT, Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Emergency Response Team and Crius Technology Group.
But while such partnerships worked for CISA, would they work for other agencies? How could staff create conditions within an organization to make innovation possible? The issue, she realized, was that there was no blueprint to follow for a government organization seeking to pursue innovation. So she decided to write one.
‘CREATING INNOVATION NAVIGATORS’
“Creating Innovation Navigators,” published in June by BMNT, the Palo Alto, California-based consultancy where Horne now works as entrepreneur-in-residence, “is the book that I wish I had been given when I was asked to stand up something in innovation within CISA,” she said, “because I didn’t understand innovation. I knew nothing about innovation.”
The book is a companion to a training course of the same name that BMNT created for public sector innovators, although the book can stand alone as a teaching tool, Horne said. It consists of eight modules, each of which contains sample cases and practical exercises to gain practice in building an innovation effort. The book also includes an extensive set of appendices providing detailed steps for building and measuring progress along an Innovation Pipeline; a glossary of common government innovation language and resources for further study. The book brings together BMNT approaches and is based on lessons learned by BMNT and important innovators such as company CEO Pete Newell, a retired Army colonel who formerly ran the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force; Steve Blank, the Stanford University adjunct professor who created the Lean Startup movement; Steve Spear, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and others.
Horne came to Washington in the years following Sept. 11, 2001, eager to help prevent another attack against the United States. Before that she was senior executive editor at Thomson Reuters and received a Master of Public Administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School. Before joining CISA, she worked at the National Security Agency, was the director of the Office of Communications at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs and worked at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence not long after its standup in 2005.
When most people think of government innovation, they think of the space program, the military and the work of startups based in Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, Texas, and across the country supplying DOD with wild new technologies that can be deployed on battlefields around the world. But most government innovation, Horne said, doesn’t involve technology. Rather, it involves finding new and better ways for government agencies to accomplish their missions.
“For DOD, so much about innovation and its 120 innovation organizations, bringing in emerging and commercial capabilities is a very important way to approach innovation,” she said. “But for the rest of the U.S. government, finding and deploying widgets around the world is not usually central to their mission.”
Among the successes for the CISA Innovation Hub was vastly reducing the time it took to hire new people. Working with CISA human resources, the hub was able to change some basic policies and sped up hiring time from eight months to six weeks.
The Innovation Hub worked with BMNT—a Silicon Valley innovation consultancy and early-stage tech incubator that was established in 2013 by two former Army colonels, Pete Newell and Joe Felter—to develop Hacking for Homeland Security, modeled after BMNT’s Hacking for Defense (H4D) program. Today, Hacking for Defense is taught at more than 50 American universities, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School and at universities in the United Kingdom and Australia. The Hacking for Homeland Security program sets loose teams of students to find solutions for real-world problems from TSA, FEMA and CISA.
The Innovation Hub was also able to use a simplified type of procurement contracting called commercial solutions openings, which are significantly faster than traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracting, to acquire a technology that AFWERX had been using. “Crius was a black box capability that the Air Force used on foreign battlefields to unify communications. … We were able to use that same technology and deploy it domestically to ensure that we were able to unify communications and elevate emergency communications.”
But government organizations starting innovation efforts can easily “get dragged down into what we call ‘innovation theater,’ ” Horne said. “It’s an intellectually interesting topic that may not really result in any activities related to mission. But if you stay focused on how we achieve mission and how do we do things differently and use different capabilities and do different ways to achieve the goal, that is the essence of what we’re talking about.”
The book discusses how to build innovation organizations; the necessary functions and resources for innovation; ways to measure progress, with metrics to show impact within an organization and how to communicate successes. And it features BMNT’s core operating system, the Innovation Pipeline. “The Innovation Pipeline is a macro-level framework to think about how to get things accomplished using innovation in government,” Horne said. The Innovation Pipeline is a five-step process that takes the user from gathering problems to transitioning to operational capabilities that are scalable and repeatable. It can be used with any existing innovation techniques, such as Lean or Scrum.
Having a blueprint and metrics to show what’s working and what isn’t is something Horne and BMNT developed at CISA. “Innovation is inherently about not knowing exactly what’s going to happen,” Horne said. “You can plan and create structures and processes that will help you achieve something, but you don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. So, you have to constantly review and check and measure how your efforts are going.”
In the end, Horne writes in the book, “Innovation is about bringing positive change to an organization: finding new ways to approach old tasks and being willing to challenge the status quo to find better, more efficient, faster, cheaper or less painful processes that will improve the organization’s outcomes.”
MICHAEL BOLD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center. He is a writer and editor for Network Runners Inc., with more than 30 years of editing experience at newspapers, including the McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He holds a of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri.