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Small Victories Equate to Long-Term IT Success, Experts Say

IT leaders from across California gathered at the 2020 Public Sector CIO Academy to learn how to mitigate the intrinsic risk of innovation. Experts advised identifying small solutions that over time result in big wins.

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e.Republic/David Kidd
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – “Innovate or die” is a common mantra in private-sector IT, but with the checks and balances of government the concept struggles to translate. But this does not mean rapid innovation is impossible, experts urged during the 2020 Public Sector Academy session.

Panelists from across state government explained that innovation doesn’t have to be a lofty goal or a multimillion-dollar project — it can be as simple as iterating and improving processes already in place. Jennifer Benson, the CIO of Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), relayed how her team started by modernizing paper reporting in the aftermath of wildfires.

The solution began organically when her team responded to a wildfire in 2017 and staff noticed that emergency responders were still using paper maps in the field, cataloging items requiring removal on a paper form, which later needed to be transcribed onto a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

“These teams were extraordinarily tired, just from being out in the elements all day long cleaning these properties and then they have to go to their hotel rooms and spend a couple hours doing data entry,” she said. “They were putting in 12- to 13-hour days during a response. When our team went out there, they recognized that this was an easy solution for us.”

The DTSC Office of Environmental Information Management implemented a mobile data collection app and smart forms within the agency’s existing ArcGIS stack for emergency responders to use. These tools allowed field staff to assess parcels based on CalFire Damage Assessment data. The effort increased debris removal efficiency by 25 percent, drew back the curtain for local government officials and the public to review cleanups in near real time and increased collaboration between first responder agencies, like CalFire, Cal OES and DTSC, she said.

As California wildfires continued to become more frequent and devastating, the cleanup processes were continually improved upon so that when the deadliest fire in the state’s history, the Camp Fire, scorched Northern California, emergency responders were able to work together quickly and efficiently.

“The benefit of the collaboration was tremendous,” said Susan Slaven, the CIO of CalReycle. “In that we all worked together on the same data set.”

It’s an example of a low-cost innovation risk that paid off big for multiple state agencies, and it follows a new trend emerging among departments in California, said Subbarao Mupparaju, the CIO of Financial Information System for California (FI$Cal). He outlined four principles to balance risk and innovation, which include flexibility, speed, business value and control.

“What happens when you have one innovative initiative and you spend six months on it, and it fails? Your success rate is zero percent,” Mupparaju said. “We’re looking for Patrick Mahomes-, Steph Curry-type success rates and that means you need to have a portfolio of innovations. Some will succeed, some may not succeed.”

A monitored, diverse set of projects will bare better results as they can be course-corrected or shut down as needed, he said. By adopting the four principles into an organization’s execution strategy, Mupparaju said agencies can create a safe environment for experiments.

Indeed, fostering a culture of experimentation was a developing theme as the conference progressed. Michael Wilkening, special adviser on innovation and digital services to Gov. Gavin Newsom, said in his opening remarks of the conference’s second day that he’s starting to see a modular approach to IT projects across various state departments, but it isn’t the norm, yet.

“We have created this environment where we can’t fail. That doesn’t mean we can’t succeed, we just can’t fail,” Wilkening said. “What that means is you change the meaning of success and so things cost more than they should, take longer than they should to come together and [then] don’t meet your needs. You somehow manage to convince yourself that that’s a success just because something is running.”

State agencies’ relationship with IT is a bit dysfunctional, he said, a feeling that has been building over the past few decades. What gives him hope, he said, is the new approaches and changing conversations surrounding risk and user-centered design.

Officials can get caught up in the continuation of the same methodology for service delivery because it’s comfortable, it works and it’s the option that exposes the organization to the least amount of vulnerability, he said, but argued that maintaining the status quo is the riskiest option because it stops an agency from evolving into a better service provider.

“Recognizing that there are going to be failures and that when we do have them, they should be on smaller projects. We should learn earlier and faster that we’re on the wrong path, but most importantly we should learn from it,” Wilkening said. “I can tell you that any project that’s half a billion dollars and goes down in flames you’re not going to learn a whole lot from. Instead you’re going to spend a lot of time scrambling.”

The solution is creating a learning environment, where honest project status reports are encouraged, and staff are encouraged to learn from both the successes and failures of both private- and public-sector organizations.

Mupparaju echoed Wilkening’s sentiments in his seminar.

“We celebrate our failures equally as our successes because we want to learn from them, we want to take steps to make sure that those things are not a hindrance and improve our operations,” he said.

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.
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