7 Ways to Innovate Government IT

Seven ingredients to tip the balance toward innovation in your organization.

by / March 3, 2014

At the risk of stating the obvious, the average government CIO isn’t able to spend much time dreaming up new projects. “Keeping the lights on” or “putting out fires,” whatever business-speak you prefer, tends to dominate the CIO’s work schedule.

This point was driven home yet again in a recent NASCIO survey: A third of respondents said they spend up to 90 percent of their time simply keeping the lights on. More than 40 percent said they spend as much as 75 percent of their time on such tasks. On the other hand, half of respondents said they spend one-quarter of their time or less on innovation, and almost 30 percent said they spend just 5 percent or less of their time on innovation-related tasks.

Carving out time to pursue innovation is not a new workplace challenge, nor is it unique to government. Phil McKinney, a former CTO of HP’s Personal Systems Group and author of Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions that Spark Game-Changing Innovation, suspects that most private-sector companies also are struggling to find a balance between daily operational tasks and innovation.

“Innovation needles to zero in most organizations,” McKinney said bluntly.

Still, government CIOs say the pressure to innovate is rising and expectations are increasing. More citizens are tech conscious and more public leaders realize that technology is a pathway for improving service and reducing costs. CIOs now must somehow find a way to focus on innovation.

Finding a balance isn’t easy, but some government CIOs have found practical ways to fit innovation into their own schedule and within the culture of the office they manage. Here are seven common-sense imperatives for driving innovation in the government enterprise.

1. Be Specific About Innovation

Innovation has become so common in business lexicon that one could argue that the word has lost meaning and become too much of a catch-all. Everybody wants to be an innovator, but most don’t spell out what it means.

A definition can help ensure expectations are kept in check and help avoid a “shoot for the stars” mentality that all innovation is possible — even though resources are always limited. A definition also can help measure time spent on innovation.

“Innovation in government isn’t necessarily you sitting there producing brand-new products that are new to the market. Innovation could be the conversations you have, the type of initiatives you push, your approach to solve the same old problems. That, in and of itself, can be strategic and innovative,” said Adel Ebeid, Philadelphia’s chief innovation officer.

Innovation also is a matter of perspective. Los Angeles CTO Steve Reneker said that when he talks to elected officials about innovation, they might think first about a mobile app or a new website. But the IT department is looking foremost at what it takes to manage and maintain the city efficiently — both are needed types of innovation.

Definitions of innovation can vary widely, but Bryan Sivak, CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, calls it “a direct result of the freedom to experiment.” If you define it that way, Sivak says he spends much of his time on innovation. Most public-sector organizations aren’t spending time and resources on innovation because they don’t value experimentation or are risk averse, he said.

2. Prepare for Failure and Embrace It

Nine out of 10 innovation efforts will end in failure, McKinney said. That may sound like a deal breaker, but failure is an unavoidable byproduct of innovation. On the bright side, failure actually can be a learning moment that leads to a later success, McKinney said. Make sure to review the lessons learned when a project crashes and burns.

McKinney recently saw a ski industry CEO describe his biggest failure to a crowd of 500 company managers. The CEO said it wasn’t a career killer and that failed innovation doesn’t have to be deadly.

Of course, failure isn’t perceived as an acceptable outcome for most government CIOs who face outsized public expectations and rising pressure from the executive suite and elected leaders. When a new IT system fails, the CIO and other staff can be fired because “wasting” taxpayers’ money is intolerable.

Colorado CIO Kristin Russell said today’s CIO must have a courageous mindset in order to survive and thrive. Blame comes with the position. Being transparent and bringing as many people in as possible early in an innovation-related project can help.

“When we’re doing something risky, I let people know this may fail — even to legislators, stakeholders, the state cabinet. And you remind them of that through the process,” Russell said.

3. Carve Out a Little Personal Time

A short burst of brainstorming can sometimes be as productive as a formal, department-level meeting. Each week Russell tries to set aside two hours on her work calendar so she can get out of the office to research something she doesn’t know about — and the topic isn’t necessarily related to technology. She uses the time to think about strategy and innovation.

Photo: Los Angeles CTO Steve Reneker

“Every time I do this it’s amazing. I walk away with 20 different ideas we could go and do. It’s hard to carve out that time and pull myself from the desk, but every time I do, I gain something and I bring it back to the organization,” Russell said.

Reneker makes time to visit the numerous websites that report on government and technology news. Web browsing can be a time waste, but Reneker’s focus is simple: He looks for creative ideas from other cities and counties that might align with an existing project request from an L.A. council member or executive sponsor. That allows him to work on innovation while also fulfilling the wants and expectations of elected leaders and his bosses.

Government likely will never have the luxury of Google’s “80/20” rule, which allows the company’s employees to use 20 percent of their work time on personal work projects. But there’s no harm in letting your employees take a few minutes to explore what others are doing in the innovation space.

4. Consider a Name Change and an Innovation Office

Perhaps the job title of chief information officer is becoming counterproductive to the innovation agenda. The CIO’s responsibilities are much broader and diverse than 20 years ago, when the main charge truly was only to keep the computer systems running. The position was in the back office. That isn’t the case anymore, of course.

“I believe the title of CIO should be abolished,” Sivak said.

Sivak thinks it’s time to call the CIO the “commodity infrastructure officer” and then put that person on the organizational chart beneath a “chief digital officer,” who would tackle the innovation activities that many CIOs are responsible for today. The beginnings of this shakeup could already be under way in cities like Philadelphia that have named a dedicated innovation officer and an innovation management unit tasked with ensuring there are always fresh ideas in the pipeline.

Splitting off innovation workers from the IT department may or may not be worth considering. Philadelphia’s innovation team is part of the Office of Innovation and Technology, which also oversees bread-and-butter IT functions like communications and infrastructure.

Reneker said leveraging existing resources within the organization has its own benefits.

“When you create an innovation organization, the technology you need to deploy for that level of innovation — a mobile app or enhanced website — all might require different tools. To have an expectation that an innovation group can learn it all and be an expert in everything isn’t really a reality,” Reneker said.

5. You Can’t Innovate Alone

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, nor does it happen when going it alone. You can say innovation is important, but if you don’t embed it in your workplace culture among your staff, innovation will never get traction.

Culture can be built up over time, but it must be a core attribute.

When McKinney coaches and mentors chief executives, he asks them how much time they truly spend on innovation. “Don’t think that you’re sitting in a room and some guy who is leading your innovation comes in to present to you — don’t think that satisfies your innovation program,” McKinney said.

You must make innovation a valued skill set among employees and hire people who, in turn, are willing to work on innovation-related activities. Not everyone’s cut out to work on open-ended projects that may fail. Sivak said the good news is that more people than you might expect are enthusiastic about innovation.
Adel Ebeid, CIO, Philadelphia

Photo: Adel Ebeid, Philadelphia’s chief innovation officer.

Ebeid advises making careful hires when vacancies arise on the CIO’s top management team. Take the opportunity to redefine the job role and include an innovation component. If you replace positions with people who aren’t dedicated to the innovation agenda, then you have little chance of getting meaningful work done.

“My agenda as CIO is not to innovate,” said Ebeid. “My job is to nurture an innovation ecosystem made up of the right individuals, the right ideation process, and constantly keeping the conversation in the forefront, always about community engagement, civic innovation, smarter government, all while delivering it for a lower unit cost.”

6. Put Innovation on Paper (or in an Email)

Assembling a list of innovation projects that are planned or in progress and sending it to staff and other stakeholders seems like a no-brainer, but the CIOs who do this say it makes them more effective.

In Los Angeles, Reneker maintains a list of the top 25 IT projects that is sent monthly to department heads, elected officials and lead staff. About half of the projects on the list are related to operations and maintenance, and the other half are innovation projects. Many of the listed projects don’t have dedicated resources attached to them, and the list makes it clear that they’ll be done as time permits.

Mixing the two types of projects is good for the IT staff’s morale because they aren’t boxed in to working on only operations and maintenance, which can become routine.

“It entices existing staff to learn and innovate, and allows the CIO to manage all these projects and requests and try to get those that have the biggest bang for the buck, both politically and from a cost-savings perspective,” Reneker said.

Colorado also emphasizes communication. A monthly email called “I Have an Idea” is sent to front-line staff so they can share their suggestions. If an idea results in cost savings, the staff person who originated it might get a bonus. Russell assigns ideas that can be feasibly implemented to an executive sponsor, which keeps them on track.

7. Think Big & Small

Some governments expect their CIO to be a visionary who generates grand ideas. That’s a commendable and necessary function for any organization, but sometimes small steps can accumulate into big results.

“Everybody thinks innovation means a huge breakthrough, but you can get just as much value derived from a little innovation — doing what you do today and doing it better,” said McKinney. He advises organizations to find a few incremental innovations and do them successfully. It may not be wise to go for a grand slam home run.

In fact, most organizations figure out that about 75 percent of ideas that are generated will be incremental improvements, McKinney said.

Another consideration is how much the innovation project should be publicized as it’s being developed. Although many governments are committed to transparency, keeping the idea in-house can help avoid bad press and the blame game, especially if the project does not come to fruition. Remember, most innovative ideas fail.

If possible, give a team permission to operate in stealth mode on small projects, McKinney said.

“As soon as it gets visibility, the antibodies tend to come out and attack the idea,” he said.

Matt Williams Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines. He also previously served as the managing editor of TechWire, a sister publication to Government Technology.2