Q&A: How to Catch Up on Innovation

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says the U.S. lags behind its counterparts on innovation.

by / October 3, 2012
Robert Atkinson, president, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

Robert Atkinson is an expert in technology policy. He also is the president and founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based technology policy think tank. Atkinson has been appointed by the last three presidential administrations to committees for the nation’s infrastructure, economy and innovation. He is the author of Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage.

Government Technology spoke with Atkinson recently about IT innovation and why the U.S. lags behind its international counterparts.

Do you think there are certain sectors in government that have the ability to be more innovative? For example, when it comes to e-government, is it easier than, say, procurement?

There are a lot more restrictions in areas like procurement where you have layers of all these rules and things where you don’t really have those restrictions. I think that that is true. This is going out of the e-government space, but think about transportation and really adopting cutting-edge intelligent transportation systems using IT. We are not very far along with that, and most governments do very little about it.

In terms of our international counterparts, where is the U.S.? How do we stack up?

We stack up very poorly. Other countries — like Japan, Korea, Singapore — and places like Stockholm and London, have really done more than we have. In Singapore, for example, every bus is on your smartphone; it’s on a display and you know when it’s coming. In Japan, all the roads are instrumented. There are a few places [in the U.S.] that are doing some interesting things here and there. San Francisco has an online app for where street parking is available, and Boston does this thing where if your iPhone goes over a bump when you are in your car, it can automatically report potholes. It seems to me that there are a lot more potential areas for innovation, but they don’t seem to be happening — or if they are, they are happening in one city and not on a broad scale, like 200 cities at once.

Why do think other countries are ahead of us?

I think that it’s partly because [other countries] have more of a national-subnational partnership. Take a country like Denmark, where the Danish central government … put in place a program that gives grants to local governments that use IT to lay off the most workers. If you think about that, it’s like a step from grand theft auto or larceny. We [in the U.S.] would never have a conversation like that, about how you could use technology to automate government work so you could cut taxpayer dollars — by actually making work that’s essentially redundant through technology. So what the Danish government does is they fund the best practices that do that, and then they encourage the adoption of those practices throughout their country.

We don’t do that, and e-government is but one thing. I remember going to a conference and a guy from a county got up and said his county had a great application that allows all citizens to be looked at in a customer relationship management (CRM) model — a whole customer model where [the county] can see everything that people are getting and optimize it. I was like, “Why isn’t somebody just developing that for every single county? They are all the same and counties all have the same programs. Why aren’t we having that program for every county in the country right now?” And the answer is because the counties don’t work together, the cities don’t work together, they don’t look at this as a collective action problem, they look at it as they are all doing their own individual things.

Do you think innovation drives a certain level of competitiveness, where instead of collaborating governments are racing against one another?

I don’t know it is that, but it could be. I think that it is just more a combination of a non- invented hearsay syndrome. Everybody wants to think that they are different and their challenges are unique. But by and large, there are many more similarities than differences. The other problem (and this is where I always thought NASCIO [National Association of State Chief Information Officers] should have, could have, would have and they don’t) is there needs to be a mechanism that pulls everybody together to do this. This is something where the feds could do things around specific federal areas. Like on transportation, the feds should be much more of a leader; ITS for the states and locals. That’s part of the reason there is no coordination mechanism to help these disparate actors do things together.

How can government be innovative in recruiting and obtaining the next generation of workers? Do you think that innovation is even needed there?

I think the single biggest thing to do is get rid of civil service protection, frankly. But that is not going to happen — just because there is dead wood wherever you are that zaps morale. Second, and perhaps more seriously, the single biggest thing to do is say that your organization, your government, is going to commit to being in the top 10 percent of innovative governments in the country — and you are going to provide an environment where the people who come in or are there are going to be able to work on fascinating, cutting-edge projects— they are going to move state-of-the-art forward. That, to me, is the single biggest way that you could attract and retain good people.

Is there anything that you would like to add?

State and local governments need to be thinking more strategically beyond the Web. For example, think about machine-to-machine interfaces. In other words, how do you actually use IT to make the city itself work better? Smart cities are not just about having a really useful interface on the Web that’s about the actual government. But rather it’s about using IT embedded throughout the entire geography of your jurisdiction. I don’t think that a lot of places have done that, and that to me is the next big opportunity.

Karen Stewartson

Karen Stewartson served as the managing editor of Government Technology for many years. She also contributed to Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.