Size and wealth are no guarantee of innovation. In fact, when it comes to innovating at the state level, size can be limiting, ultimately squelching forward momentum. This could be why Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation, is charging ahead with an effort more typical of leading-edge tech companies like Google or Amazon.
Just this week, state officials set in motion a plan that takes mid-level managers out of their offices and pairs them with their counterparts throughout 10 other typically siloed state agencies. The effort is called the Government Innovation League.
Officials are hopeful participants will ultimately return to their home agencies with new tools, new ideas and solutions that fix some of the state’s most central issues.
Behind the entire undertaking is Chief Innovation Officer Richard Culatta, who said the purpose is not to impress the need for more responsive solutions to agency executives, but rather to give those with unique access into both front-line teams and leadership circles the tools they need to start more fruitful conversations between them.
“The idea is, at the end, that they will sort of go back and be ambassadors to their agencies for bringing these new approaches in," he said. "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."
The idea is similar to Google’s 20 percent initiative, in which staff were allowed to take 20 percent of their working hours to solve an issue of their choosing. For Rhode Island, a select team of cohorts will spend one week a month for nine months focusing on the topics they agree would bring value to the state. Expert facilitators are scheduled to help guide the conversations.
Representatives from the departments of Administration, Education, Environmental Management, Health, Labor and Training, Transportation, and the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner and Division of Information Technology are involved in the effort's first iteration.
Though the team got off to a quick start outlining some focus topics during the first set meetings Feb. 28 and March 1, Government Innovation Director Kevin Parker said convincing agency leaders to allow their staff to take the time to participate was met with some initial reluctance.
“They’re not going to be on vacation 20 percent of the time. They’re going to be working on projects that directly improve the service delivery of the agency," he said. "I think that it just takes a little bit more of a conversation to drive that point home."
Despite the good intentions of public servants, the static nature of government office environments is not always conducive to starting innovative processes. Both Culatta and Parker are hopeful that pulling them into a neutral and inclusive environment will kickstart the creative process.
“We don’t do a very good job of creating what I call public-sector entrepreneurs,” Culatta said. "We have incredibly talented people and of course we can always use more resources. But there is only one way that it ever seems that they do it, through these traditional approaches — a contract, a regulation, a policy. So how do you expect people to take on new approaches if they don’t even know what the options are?”