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Leading Data-Driven Breakthroughs

Creativity and a willingness to take on risk can help unlock data’s value.

by / May 1, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to speak to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers at a leadership meeting in Indianapolis. I have been involved in applying data to solve public problems for some time, but I felt the need to brush up on some of the most current technical issues because of the sophistication of the group.

It turns out, though, that those present were so sophisticated that they did not need to discuss technology at all — they wanted to discuss leadership in an analytics-driven government. The vast majority of those present identified legal, leadership and structural issues, not technical ones, as the barriers to significant data-driven breakthroughs in state government. The questions went to Indiana CIO Paul Baltzell, who under Gov. Mike Pence has made substantial progress in unlocking value with data. His response centered more on how to organize users and techies, how to apply the mandate of his boss and how to overcome various legal interpretations.

Baltzell took up the issue of child mortality when he became Indiana’s CIO at the beginning of 2013 — an area in which the state sadly exceeds nearly all other states. Baltzell is building upon the foundational work of others, who got tablets into the hands of every case worker to deliver information in the field. Now, he is attempting to bring in more disparate data sets and analytical methods to make the system predictive so caseworkers can make the right decisions on the spot. He’s taking risks to attempt an untested solution, a big step that requires him to be entirely committed, while also utilizing the talents of his IT professionals, the contributions of case workers, and data resources scattered across government departments.

As governments begin the complicated transition to becoming truly responsive, embracing the digital tools and new approaches necessary, we see time and time again that every step forward is pushed both from the top down and the bottom up. The elected leader authorizes someone close to him or her to carry the banner — overcoming operating and data silos, refereeing among agency lawyers who tend to overinterpret federal data-sharing laws, and developing an appetite for unlocking big answers. Use cases originated in many instances from the bottom, from the field workers and their managers responsible for a solution.

We saw this formula of top-down leadership coupled with a broad-based, bottom-up appetite for answers in all the cities leading this drive: New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Boston’s Tom Menino. These strong mayors supported key tech leaders like Mike Flowers, NYC’s first director of analytics, or Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics or first Brett Goldstein and now Brenna Berman in Chicago.  

More importantly, perhaps, was that they all took risks — not just in untried technologies and innovative ideas, but also by using these very technologies to share decision-making and data in order to utilize the resources of their citizens and employees. The best leaders are willing to acknowledge that they are building stepping stones rather than final products and are enthusiastic to throw things out when someone else comes up with a new algorithm or app that does it better.

The leaders mentioned here — along with many more who are contributing the building blocks to the new responsive city, and many potential leaders yet to emerge — possess the same qualities. True leadership in the digital age means moving forward with commitment and sureness, yet driving innovation selflessly, willing to devolve power when needed. A good leader knows how to cultivate and channel citizens’ energy toward providing answers to their own problems and sees the real potential of employees and citizens to innovate.

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Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.

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