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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Feb. 9, 2021

Operation Innovation: Coast Guard establishes Innovation Council executive steering group

By Shana Brouder, MyCG Writer

The Coast Guard identified the need for innovation in the Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022: “Innovate for better organizational performance.” Now an updated charter puts the weight of Coast Guard senior leadership behind the Innovation Council and its efforts to promote innovation within the organization and accelerate the process from idea to Service-wide implementation.  

The updated Innovation Council charter approved recently by Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray created a new senior-level Executive Steering Group (ESG). Co-chaired by Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, deputy commandant for mission support (DCMS), and Vice Adm. Scott Buschman, deputy commandant for operations (DCO), the group is tasked with ensuring unity of purpose for Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E) and Innovation Program initiatives across the Coast Guard enterprise. 

“Senior-level champions are an essential component in pursuing innovation within the Coast Guard,” explained Capt. Joseph Sundland, the Coast Guard’s chief technology officer and serves on the Innovation Council as the representative for the assistant command for C4IT. “The ESG is our forum of champions.”

As senior leaders, ESG members have increased visibility on current and emerging needs, gaps, and challenges that threaten Coast Guard mission success. Their input will be invaluable as Innovation Council members fulfill their duty to assess new technologies and implement strategic guidance on RDT&E and innovation priorities.

“We are responsible for shepherding ideas through the process,” said Sundland. “The enthusiasm and support of senior leaders behind ideas with the potential to have a major impact on future mission success will propel the Coast Guard to operationalize 'NextGen' solutions.”

The Innovation Council also serves as a key connector between those in the field and those working in program offices at headquarters. “Some of the best ideas come from the deck plate,” said Sundland. “The Innovation Council is a place to review ideas based on strategic and technical needs.” 

Most of the ideas that come to the Innovation Council are submitted through the CG_Ideas@Work crowdsourcing platform. Nearly 500 ideas were submitted in 2020, so senior leadership’s guidance on priorities is key. “We review all ideas submitted,” said Sundland. “Unfortunately, not all can get support, but we do connect each with a program that may be doing something similar if the Innovation Council can’t support the idea ourselves.” 

The Innovation Council is also tasked with providing annual science, technology, and innovation priorities for the vice commandant, linking related efforts to prevent duplication of effort, and informing the annual research portfolio development process.

“Our mission is always to help the operators — help them be safer and more efficient,” said Sundland. Flag-level engagement through the Executive Steering Group will allow the Innovation Council to focus on this aspect of their mission, while ensuring the necessary support for new innovations is solidified on the front-end. 

When asked how individuals submitting ideas through CG_Ideas@Work could improve their chances of being picked up by the Innovation Council, Sundland offered three pieces of advice: 

  1. Ensure your use cases highlight enterprise impact — the bigger the better. “If folks reach out and talk to others in the mission area program about possible use cases,” said Sundland, “this will help identify needs that extend beyond the unit level, and address an enterprise gap.” 
  2. Be frugal when possible. “Ideas that require minimum funding are easy wins,” said Sundland. Additionally, Sundland recommended that sustainability be identified at the forefront, which each program can assist with. “If it’s the right capability to meet an operational gap, it will have a better chance to get funding, but funding can be tight.” Ideas that require less funding up front and overtime are seen as more sustainable and more likely to get funded.
  3. Be patient — it’s a long process. “Don’t get discouraged,” said Sundland. “Delivering the right product at the right technical maturity level, to the right place, at the right time; it often takes more time than you would expect, but the process will save time and money in the long run.”

What types of innovations are moving from idea to concept and beyond? Below is a recent example:

Coast Guard District Innovation Action Officers:  Submitted by Wyman Briggs, a civilian at Sector Northern New England, to the “From Strategy to Impact” campaign in June 2020, this idea sought to enhance innovation by assigning technology innovators at Coast Guard units to improve productivity, efficiency, and quality of life, all while making the Coast Guard more mission ready. The Innovation Council and the RDT&E and Innovation Program implemented this idea, and welcomed aboard 14 District Innovation Action Officers (from nine Coast Guard Districts) in January 2021. These action officers will function as a point of contact for upcoming technology demonstrations and technology bridge opportunities, highlight local district innovations, identify gaps and challenges in search of innovative solutions, and participate and foster local innovation efforts. These action officers will have direct access to the Innovation Council to better integrate innovation activities and opportunities at the field level, and will encourage their district shipmates to submit ideas on CG_Ideas@Work.