Making the case for reinventing the wheel in government

Enrique Martínez
4 min readOct 29, 2020

Four years ago I left the creative oasis of the Rhode Island School of Design to join the federal government. I moved to the nation’s capital from the nation’s smallest state days after the 2016 election. After two decades teaching some of the most creative students in the world how to give purpose to their imagination, I was ready to bring that on to Washington.

The small innovation lab I was joining was in the sub basement of a federal building — a “cool space” for government standards, not so much for my own. My job was to share the design process with government employees and help them use it to address public problems. The design process is a flexible approach that the different design disciplines adapt to their own needs. The way a fashion designer, an architect, or a service designer work to get to solutions may seem different, but it has a similar core, which is what I wanted to make available to the federal workforce.

Around the time of the 2018 midterm election, I moved from the lab to a leadership development unit within the same agency to work with senior executives. By this time, I knew government well enough to be conversational in acronyms. I knew the pains of purchasing even the simplest things. I was proficient at filling work reports using software that seemed out of an early James Bond movie. Thinking I was slowly becoming a true fed, I remember promising myself that the day I tolerated those clunky procedures as the normal way of doing business would be the day I would leave government.

The upside was seeing managers from all agencies and ranks, with zero design background, sketch a quick diagram or draw a user experience journey map. In one meeting, someone said the customary “let’s not reinvent the wheel,” and I found myself interrupting to say that reinventing the wheel is what humans do, and what governments should do too: without that mentality, we would still be rubbing sticks to make a fire. I admit that some wheels are just fine the way they are, for the time being. But the mere thought of innovation relies on the premise that a creative mindset should be the norm, not the exception.

My journey with the federal government ended this week. Although four years of making a case for a more creative government have been my great…

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Enrique Martínez

Devil’s Advocate in Chief. To exist is to resist. Bringing a creative perspective to leadership. Design is a life skill. Drawing in black and white.