Robert Atkinson Discusses the Future of IT Innovation

As founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Atkinson says a barrier to innovation in government is a lack of competition.

by / November 1, 2012
Robert Atkinson, president and founder, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

Robert Atkinson is the president and founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a technology policy think tank that formulates and promotes public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity. 

Prior to ITIF, Atkinson served as the vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, where his work earned him a spot as one of Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers in 2002. In a recent interview, we picked Atkinson’s brain about the future of IT innovation in state and local government.

Robert’s favorite quote is: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

— Winston Churchill

Where do you think state and local governments are today when it comes to IT innovation?

I think they have certainly made some progress; they all have websites. There have been some improvements in e-government, but it hasn’t been as innovative as it could be. 

What do you think are the barriers to innovation?

I discussed this five years ago with my 15-year-old son, and he made the observation that when you don’t have to compete for eyeballs, you don’t have an incentive to be innovative. And I think at a real fundamental level, they don’t have to be innovative. A principal thing is that there’s not any real competition, so governments can kind of muddle along. A second factor is that bureaucracies, in and of themselves, are not all that innovative, particularly with public-sector unions resisting innovation. 

How can state and local government improve when it comes to IT innovation and how can ITIF help?

We can’t help in a direct way, but we can [assist] through soft leadership and the things we write or talk about — what we think the best practices are that a state or local government could adopt. The biggest problem I see is that they focus too much on the technology and not the business process. What they really should be doing is looking at all of the things they do from a process perspective and ask, “Do we need to even be doing this and could technology replace it?” And second, what are the best practices around the world in terms of using technology in an innovative way to provide this service? 

Where will state and local governments be in 20 to 25 years with regard to IT innovation?

The hope would be that they would have shifted over a large share of what they currently do in paper, face-to-face and via telephone to online and digital, automated digital or self-service forms. 


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.