The remarkable thing about innovation in government is that it happens at all.
The even more remarkable thing is that it often makes the private sector better — challenging incumbent industry players and startups alike to help solve big, complex and public problems.
It is a reach for public agencies too. Not only do these arrangements cast government as both customer and partner in innovation, but they also go against type.
Public institutions are equal parts ballast and glue — the former providing stability in the sometimes rough seas of societal, economic and technological change; the latter serving as a social mucilage that helps hold communities together. The guardians of those institutions, and many who work within them, are understandably resistant to shaking things up.
By one recent estimate (ours) there are at least 175 public employees doing the work of innovation officers. They are not Machiavellian in disposition, but Nicolo aptly described their role about 600 years ago: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.”
Look at what the cloud has initiated. Today you cannot compute without it. But it was only five short years ago that two-thirds of state CIOs responded to a straw poll by selecting “no clouds in sight.” In the intervening years, the technology has matured and competitors entered into a certification arms race to earn their way into the government market. The blue-skies point of view has also flipped, with many state and local CIOs actively working to get themselves out of the infrastructure business.
Today self-driving vehicles bring with them the promise to usher in a new order of moving people and things. Their entry onto public roadways has raised concerns among consumer advocates and policymakers about safety, security, liability and a lack of training about how not to drive this new category of vehicles. The level and variety of automated features further confuse the conversation — parking and braking assistance are, by themselves, well short of being an autonomous vehicle. Fully self-driving cars are not expected to be on the road until 2020, but self-driving technologies — including parking assistance, blind-spot detectors and front-end crash warning systems — are being built into cars today.
As builder of roads; regulator of car manufacturing; licenser of drivers (for now), taxis and ride-hailing companies; and provider of public transportation, governments have a multifaceted role in the development of this form of transportation. That is a lot to unpack and time consuming to resolve, particularly if government is relying on its own policy deliberations to get it done.
But government is not acting alone. The insurance industry is signaling its willingness to buy risk in the meantime. A UK firm has introduced policies for driverless cars, which includes coverage for failure to: (a) install vehicle software updates and security patches, and satellite outages affecting navigation systems; (b) manually override the system to prevent an accident should the system fail; and (c) loss or damage if the car gets hacked.
In both cases — the cloud and self-driving cars — third parties are doing what government cannot in mitigating risk. These moves provide coverage, literally and figuratively, for government and other players in moving forward with innovations. That is very good news because guardians of the past tend to be comfortable with the deliberative processes that lead to “no” and remove the need for action. “Yes” is scarier for bureaucracies, but that is the answer that leads to more interesting paths to what very well could be preferred futures.
Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.