Q&A: USAID's chief innovation officer on whole-of-agency integration

Alexis Bonnell, chief innovation officer at USAID. Photo by: USAID

SAN FRANCISCO — As the United States Agency for International Development undergoes an internal reorganization, innovation will be integrated across more of its programs.

“Innovation is prioritized in USAID’s structural reorganization as a key area that needs whole-of-agency attention and integration,” said Alexis Bonnell, chief innovation officer at USAID.

USAID first launched the U.S. Global Development Lab, an innovation hub within the agency, in 2014. Now that USAID is in the implementation phase of its transformation, it is mainstreaming innovation across the agency. As the lab approaches its five year anniversary, its next iteration will be as part of the Development, Democracy, and Innovation Bureau, which will provide support and technical assistance to everyone in the agency looking to bring innovation to their work.

“Innovating is everyone's job.”

— Alexis Bonnell, chief innovation officer, USAID

“It is about discovering and recognizing the best ways of doing development in the modern age and helping more of USAID pivot to working that way,”  Bonnell told Devex. “The question is how do we continue to do the expeditionary work, where the future of the agency is the client, but more importantly how do we be of service?”

Nearly six months into her new role as chief innovation officer, which sits administratively within the lab but also serves the agency, she spoke with Devex about the future of innovation at USAID.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you bring your background in applied innovation at USAID to this new role overseeing innovation across the agency and evolving the way USAID approaches development?

Being innovative is more than anything having a voracious appetite for excellence — constantly asking how we can do something better, something smarter, really to achieve more impact. And I think you can see across USAID, and especially in the last few years, that an appetite for innovation is permeating how we're working — whether it's our growing use of prizes or challenges or ventures — or really building on the larger co-creation principles that have driven so much of our recent evolution.

Innovation can only have an impact if it’s used, and so a lot of our recent work and elements that I'm excited about is figuring out how to get innovation used. We've had the opportunity to mature our approach to innovation over the years, and really, more than ever, we realized that innovating is everyone's job. 

How did the lab shape the way USAID pursues innovation and this idea that innovation is everyone’s job?

There are four elements that the creation of the Lab really helped provide fertile ground for: resources; time and bandwidth; talent; and culture.

There are resources in the classic sense but also resources in talent. Talent might not simply be a number of new bodies that have innovation in their title. If you equated, for example, someone who didn’t feel they could spend 10 percent of their time and now does, that’s also a commitment of resources.

Exploration and evolution requires time and bandwidth. It's hard to make consistent big breakthroughs if it's a side gig. The idea of giving people the time and space and having people whose job it is to be advancing some things maybe the agency hadn’t resourced was a really important investment by the agency.

When it comes to talent, this concept of bringing in experts in new disciplines was critical to advancing our evolution. You can’t expect a person who is a what” person, like a nutrition specialist, to also be an expert in all of the emerging “hows,” or new tools. Having a talent team that could serve and support others was really critical.

You mentioned that innovation can only have an impact if it’s used. What are some examples of that?

As much as something is innovative, it can also be pretty straightforward. So an example is Development Innovation Ventures. It is an amazing program that has had an incredible impact.

“Innovation really is a team sport. It’s a contact sport.”

But what I sometimes tell people, is while this may not be very sexy, it's also the most flexible way we procure things. We have the option to actually partner or do business or move money with that type of flexibility. Our most successful argument for innovation is just recognizing that having the most flexible procurement policy or mechanism that you can have is just smart business.

How is the new Acquisition and Assistance Strategy, which includes plans to increase the use of collaborative partnering methods, an example of that? The A and A strategy cites USAID’s desire to see a 10 percent increase in co-creation models for procurement. Number one, that’s a huge shift if you think about the money. But number two, it's a huge shift in the way we procure, the way we resource, and who we do that with.

Taking something as straightforward and maybe not as sexy as procurement, and seeing what that A and A strategy does to make these different ways of doing business more accessible to the average staff is really what I think is going to unlock those resources.

Can you expand on how the agency has built a culture of innovation and what some of the lessons are?

The best part of a part of my job is my fellow innovators at USAID. Innovation really is a team sport. It’s a contact sport. In a contact sport, someone's hitting you down, you stop wanting to play. And I think that people that often really create a culture that has allowed USAID to thrive in innovation is our colleagues in acquisitions, our legal colleagues, and our colleagues in public affairs.

What I’ve realized in interacting with other innovators in government — those three groups, and more than that — is they really create an environment and set a tone. And if they act as barriers or naysayers, or the place you go to get the word no, you don't see too much innovation.

But in our case, one of my favorite things to do is when I hear a great idea or I have a crazy idea, is call legal and procurement folks and say: “Can we do that?” The very fact that I look forward to that conversation and that they add to the can-do attitude and enthusiasm takes this from being daunting to exciting.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the greatest stuff that’s happened at USAID at some point had kind of a single person or a team that were just willing to champion it every day. That's one of the things that just doesn't get talked about enough.

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.