Innovation League Takes Deeper Root in Rhode Island Government

The state’s effort to start new conversations with what they already have seems to have taken root and is changing the government culture for the better.

by / September 21, 2017
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When the Rhode Island innovation team made the case for taking mid-level managers out of their agencies and putting them together in a room four days per month, they didn’t know whether there would be any outcomes worth the effort.

For all they knew, the cohort program they were calling the Innovation League could be one of those things that government tries to adapt from the private sector, only to fail at the hands of sticky government bureaucracy and cultural quicksand. But the first run of the league, which began in February 2017 and ends in early November, has done so well creating new avenues for conversation that state agencies are sending more people to take part.

With the second run of the league starting this week, Director of Government Innovation Kevin Parker said the positive outcomes from the initial cohort have made a strong case for a second iteration. And while the first group consisted of 16 people, the second group is double the size.

“What's interesting, and you have to understand that much of what we are doing is a big experiment, I’m not really sure what is going to happen,” he explained, “but we have 16 innovation league members that are wrapping up this year, and I think we have another 20 to 30 who are starting next week from various agencies and departments.” 

The idea behind the whole exercise was to take agency leadership out of their siloes and into a space where they could talk about their respective initiatives and troubles, and potentially come up with cooperative solutions.

The cohort isn’t so much about solving all of the state’s intergovernmental issues, as much as it is sorting through specific, pet problems with the help of talent from other agencies. 

When Government Technology originally talked with Parker and former Chief Innovation Officer Richard Culatta in early March, the pair explained that the idea was based on Google’s 20 percent initiative, which gives staff 20 percent of their working hours to tackle issues of their choosing.

Though Culatta, who initially pushed for the idea, stepped away from the state to pursue a position in the private sector, Parker said the team has kept the mission and momentum moving forward. 

With a new group set to partially overlap, Parker said the first cohort will serve as mentor partners to the incoming members until the first set returns to their respective offices in November. 

“The idea is, at the end, they will sort of go back and be ambassadors to their agencies for bringing these new approaches in," Culatta said at the time. "When this cohort finishes, another cohort will come along, and that will be the next class and these guys will become the mentors for that next group."

When asked how the cohort ambassadors ensure they maintain the momentum when flying on their own back at their home agencies, Parker said leaders are more aware of the program potential and have offered their full support. From where he sits, engaging leaders is half of the battle. The other half is building and supporting the peer network program graduates need to continue the conversation.

“It’ll be an adventure to see how we can kind of wind this down, wind down the first cohort, but also bring in the second. We’re going to be doubling our size and see how that continues. I think that the institutionalization is the hard part, how do we keep this momentum going?” he said. “But I know that many of the folks that have gone through our first cohort have that innovation seal of approval, and they have bought into this to the extent that now they understand it and they see the practical applications.”

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.