When it comes to keeping abreast of government IT innovation, few individuals enjoy a better perspective than Dave McClure, associate administrator for GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. McClure spent 14 years with the Government Accountability Office leading IT reviews — and five more years with Gartner, heading government research, before joining the General Services Administration in 2009. In addition to supporting a number of major federal IT initiatives, McClure also makes time to meet with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to keep his finger on the technology pulse.

AOL Government Editorial Director Wyatt Kash recently caught up with McClure, and his principal deputy, Kathy Conrad, to talk about the benefits of looking at start-ups for ideas that might eventually benefit federal agencies.

AOL Government: You attend various meetings involving start-ups and IT entrepreneurs. What makes them worthwhile for you and your work at GSA?

Dave McClure: A lot of it is done through alliances that bring together new companies and entrepreneur firms interested in getting their products out into the marketplace, whether it’s commercial or public sector. A lot of it is learning what’s out there from a solution perspective and new ideas in the applications space. The flip side is to get these new companies to understand some business opportunities in the government market. So it’s a two-way download.

What have you seen that you aren’t seeing from the integrator community?

McClure: The best way to describe it is niche products and services.

Kathy Conrad: And in some cases they are solutions oriented toward fairly wide spread issues that affect both government and industry, where they may have an innovative approach to collaboration that we are not aware of, but is very well aligned with some of the problems we are trying to solve.

McClure: Yes, and remember they are looking back down the periscope at us. They don’t have a very good view into what’s happening in the government space, so a lot of it is educating them on the trends in open government, transparency, data access. They loved to hear about these things; they are just not wired into it like we are.

Conrad: And we are always eager to hear about the trends that affect the development of technology in the coming years; and what’s hot from their perspective.

(It also helps identify), for instance, what are the next cloud services where there may be an unmet need in terms of acquisition. So part of it is looking at where is demand for new contract vehicles that we may not be thinking of but for which there may be solutions that don’t have another point of access into the government.

We learned battery manufacturers actually saw the production and sales of batteries as a secondary business for them. Their business model going forward is producing software and applications…and moving more to services.”

Can you give an example of something that you saw that impressed you?

McClure: Without being specific, what’s interesting to us is we see small scale applications: They might be in something that’s on tracking, or dashboards, providing a visualization of a service around information that the government has put out that we might not see from the government space-where a provider has actually taken the data, put some value into it or combined with something and is offering a whole new solution.

One example I can give you: We went and looked at sustainability products, looking at battery technologies. It was an interesting conversation. We learned battery manufacturers actually saw the production and sales of batteries as a secondary business for them. Their business model going forward is producing software and applications that track charging stations for consumers on their phone so they can get you to their charging stations. They can tell you how long you have to wait, what the amount of time will be required to recharge.

So it’s a whole service associated with getting into that market. We have seen the trend a lot–how Silicon Valley companies are moving more to the services side. It’s not so much the core product; it’s all the services they can wrap around it and make money that way.

Do you envision that business model beginning to inform the services your department is fielding?

McClure: Yes, definitely!

Conrad: And that’s also why we are moving away from buying commodity products and physical assets and trying to commoditize services, so that we are not investing in expensive capital infrastructure that has to be maintained.

What else are you hearing in the way of innovation in the government marketplace? And how might agencies adopt innovative ideas faster?

Dave McClure: I think almost everybody in government across all agencies is interested in innovation. It’s not the time to ramp down on it; they actually see an opportunity in a resource-constrained budget environment (to ask) what can we do differently that’s more efficient and gives us better customer service satisfaction. So I think there is a big appetite for innovation.

In fact, the constant thing (I keep hearing) is the frustration of not knowing what’s going on around the government and the innovation space. We’re extremely stove-piped and decentralized…and we don’t have sharing going on across the agencies.

Conrad: Another takeaway (from recent) discussions is that…everybody agrees there are pockets of innovation…but it’s very hard to take those innovations and replicate them or tailor them to similar business problems at other agencies.

Homeland Security Department CIO Richard Spires, speaking for the CIO Council, has expressed the need to capture innovative IT practices more effectively. Do you see GSA assisting in that?

McClure: We want to. We came up the idea of an innovation portal last year. It’s circulating around on the table for discussion. The idea is to create a website where we can do multiple things–highlight what’s going on, share best practices, reuse solutions that have already been developed by someone else, create a store house of just information on innovation approaches, techniques, methodologies, things like that. It would let agencies highlight what they are doing — not just captured under a performance umbrella, but an innovation umbrella.

And what’s the status of that at this point?

McClure: It’s floating. But I think actually on the Hill, there is a lot of consensus around sharing– as long as we can show that there is value around that sharing and that adoption take-up is on the rise as a result of it.