Why allowing the “unnatural act” of a government failure is a necessary part of innovation.
Former District of Columbia CTO Bryan Sivak is best known for implementing technology initiatives like the accountability portal TrackDC. But his new role as Maryland’s first chief innovation officer may be his most challenging yet.
Sivak is tasked with helping to implement some of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature initiatives like setting up the best health insurance exchange in the country, addressing critical issues like public safety and broadband access, and engaging citizens in their government via technology and social media.
Though it’s been just four months since he started, Sivak says he’s looking forward to ushering in an open mentality when it comes to the challenges of innovating. In two phone interviews — one in late May and another in early August — Sivak spoke about the variations he sees in working for different levels of government and why failure is a necessary part of innovation.
There are some very interesting differences between the state and local levels. Many are pretty obvious, but I think they’re hard to grasp until you’ve done both. You’re not dealing with things, like potholes and mass transit systems, so it definitely takes longer to see the impacts of many decisions and actions you take. But the potential scope of any decision or action is much broader. I think with the right attitudes of the people running the operational agencies (the cabinet secretaries and others in the governor’s office), there are some very direct and tangible actions that can be seen relatively quickly and easily. It just depends on what you’re looking to do and how to do it.
I’ve been approaching this very much the same way I was approaching it at the city level. I think given what I’m trying to do, a lot of the activities are going to be similar. Many of the people in the O’Malley administration also came from the city level. A lot of people were working with him when he was the mayor of Baltimore. The experiences that I have and that a lot of the other folks in the administration have are very similar.
Absolutely. When you’re running and doing work in a city, I think there’s a very strong connection to the people and to tangible things you can do to affect their lives in a beneficial way. It’s much more personal. You’re interacting with individuals on a more regular basis, and that has to come with you when you move up the ladder. As you scale these different jurisdictional boundaries, it gets less personal. But I think those personal stories and contacts bring you back down. They’re the things that remind you of why you’re doing this in the first place.
To really do some of the things I’m trying to do, I need to get the cabinet secretaries to actually work with me and want to try some of these new ideas. I think that my experience running an agency — obviously not as big, but still a pretty large operation — gives me some street cred, if you will. I can go to a cabinet secretary and say, “Look, I’ve done your job, at least in a similar fashion, so I know what you’re facing. I understand how hard it can be to try anything new and different with the challenges of a day-to-day operation.” But I think that’s where I can help. That’s where I can come in and say, “There are different ways of doing things that are complementary to achieving the goals of your organization and your operation, and we can work on all of those things.
One side of it is looking at a series of objectives the governor has. It’s kind of a fascinating administration because he’s term-limited, so he really has to execute as quickly as he can on a number of different things. I’m working on trying to help look at some of these signature initiatives and get them done in a relatively quick time frame. For example, the governor wants Maryland to be the No. 1 state for health care in the country. As part of that, we have early adopter grants from the federal government to build this health insurance exchange that needs to be set up by 2014. Our goal is to set up the best one out there — the one that helps the most people and that does everything as well as we can possibly imagine it.
There are a whole bunch of other things around public safety. The governor is big on interoperability and making sure people can communicate with each other in times of crisis. We have lots of different projects happening right now in the public safety arena that need to be knit together in a seamless and cohesive fashion. Broadband is something I focused on quite heavily in D.C. And digital divide issues — that’s another thing that’s big in Maryland right now, so I’m working on that. I’m trying to push different agencies to take advantage of new technologies to capture citizen feedback or communication around various issues ... ways of leveraging social media to both get information from people and push information to people.
There are many different ways to define the term or the concept of innovation within government. What I’m explaining to people as an overall mission [is] a single statement: Innovation means challenging the status quo, wherever it exists. That statement can be applied in a number of ways. One obvious way is breaking through years of entrenched bureaucracy and the “because that’s how that’s always been done” attitude. Another way is to push people, especially leaders at agencies or managers of large groups of people, to be more risk-tolerant and to understand that failure is not only an option, but it’s sometimes a necessity to actually move some things forward — as long as that failure is fast and cheap.
When I first started in government a couple of years ago, I was expecting to see the [stereotypical] government bureaucrat. What I found, more often than not, were people who are incredibly motivated and dedicated to the job they’re trying to do, and really are doing it for the right reason ... because they were trying to do something good for people. I think over years, a lot of your drive and gusto gets beaten out of you by bureaucratic red tape, people telling you “no” and not being able to find an easy way around things. Then maybe worst of all, there’s typically no incentive in the government for anybody to try anything new. As I said before, I think failure is a necessary part of innovation. You can’t be expected to hit a home run every time. Sometimes it’s going to be a single; sometimes you’re going to foul out to the catcher. But we need to accept that to make some significant changes.
A lot of this boils down to really letting the people who are in the trenches doing the day-to-day work do things in their own way. Give them the freedom to try new stuff. They’re the ones who know all these things the best. Let them fail and then let them succeed, and celebrate both the failures and successes until people realize there are better ways of doing things.
It’s not a natural act for governments that are under constant scrutiny and pressure to never do anything wrong. I think that’s another side of it that has to be addressed, but that’s part of my role. I want to evangelize the fact that you can’t expect things to be perfect every time, especially if you want things to work out for the better and change. The way to do it is to find some bright spots because there are people out there doing this right now in Maryland and elsewhere. If we can find those bright spots, hold them up as shining examples and show people how to replicate that success, then we can start a really significant movement toward making this the status quo as opposed to the way they are right now.
The universe of potential projects keeps growing. I’ve gotten involved in initiatives ranging from public health, procurement reform, work force issues, public data and transparency, job creation, technology commercialization and much more. The big challenge, to be honest, has been keeping things off my plate — there’s a ton of interesting work to do.
This role is less of a “creative idea generation and implementation” job and more of a “surface and facilitate the ideas of others” job. I’ve spoken to public, private and nonprofit organizations that have tried or are trying to do something like this and the situations are all very similar — the organizational hierarchies, internal bureaucracies and politics have prevented good ideas from surfacing and being implemented. Fear is a potent motivator. If an organization is truly serious about doing something like this, it has to be willing to implement significant cultural change and be ready to celebrate small failures as much as successes. This means finding an individual or individuals who can truly fill the role of enablers, either from a minor financial perspective, a collaboration and silo-breaking perspective, a red-tape cutting perspective or in many cases, all of the above. Leaders have to be willing to embrace challenges to the status quo — something easier said than done. And in the medium to long term, it helps to set aside a relatively small fund to help enable potentially risky ideas that require small investments to get started.
One thing I’ve been spending a lot of time on is job creation. The governor is a big believer in small companies being the engine of job growth, and I’ve been looking at ways to help enable the creation of new businesses across the state. Maryland receives a huge amount of investment of R&D dollars, but it ranks relatively low in terms of commercialization of the technologies created through this investment. I believe that there isn’t too much a state can do from a legislative perspective to help solve this problem, but there is one thing government is ideally positioned to do: convene. There is a large community of individuals in the state who can help build out these groups and provide a robust support infrastructure, and we can help enable these communities by creating connections between existing groups and individuals who don’t normally connect. Another area of focus for me is cost-neutral internal operational efficiency. I’m helping a number of agencies implement ideas that are primarily focused on process change, some related to technology, but more often than not, [are] based on basic cultural change. I’m also working on a longer-term effort to formalize the ability for individuals and groups to not only think creatively about ways they can challenge the status quo, but also to actually do something about it. This is one of those efforts where if I am successful, my position might no longer be necessary because we will have been able to bake these concepts into the DNA of the organization. That’s looking far down the road, but I’m optimistic that we can at least get the organization moving along this path during my tenure in the state.
So far I have found a wide and varied range of groups and individuals across the government. We have a number of agency leaders and middle managers who are true visionaries and have been willing to embrace new ideas or initiatives in the name of progress. There is not much I need to do in these situations except help surface ideas from elsewhere in the bureaucracy and make connections between organizational silos to facilitate the implementation of these ideas. There are other cases where the ossified bureaucracy has created layers of middle management who are incented to keep their heads down as opposed to trying new things, and this is where I’ve had a lot of fun so far. One of the great things about my job is that I can assume a lot of risk. If you have a great idea but worry that if something goes wrong it will come back to haunt you, I can accept the risk of failure and take the blame if necessary, while letting you take all the credit if the implementation of the idea is successful. Convincing people that this is actually possible is a bit of a challenge, but once we get there, anything is possible.