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Rhode Island's First Chief Innovation Officer Previews What's to Come

Richard Culatta says that in government, collaboration is the key to getting things done.

As Rhode Island's first chief innovation officer, Richard Culatta is approaching the position a bit differently than other state innovation officers. For starters, his office is based out of Rhode Island College, where he plans to collaborate with faculty and students, and tap into a research community that shares goals common to government.

Culatta was appointed to the position by Gov. Gina Raimondo Jan. 11.

"I'm really interested in partnering in new ways. I found that to be very effective at the federal government," Culatta said of his time as an advisor with the U.S. Department of Education. "I think there are a lot of problems that aren't easily solved by government alone, or by the public sector or foundations alone. And so I think the best solutions happen when we connect across those lines."

Talking about collaboration is one thing, but establishing his office at the university is proof of commitment, Culatta said. His office hasn't yet set an agenda, having been active less than a week, but one project he is fairly certain they will pursue is building an innovation cohort to encourage a culture of innovation.

"We are going to be looking at how can we help encourage people who are already in government and doing innovative things to really have the support that they need to continue to try out new and more effective approaches," Culatta said. "We will be pulling individuals from each of the agencies to come participate as a group to share approaches that work, and also to connect with other people at other agencies who have found solutions to get things done that they may not know about. Sort of like accelerating sharing of innovative approaches across the agencies."

Culatta said he hopes to expand this model beyond Rhode Island to include innovators around the nation, pointing to his office's Twitter and Facebook pages as a starting point for idea sharing.

"We want people to engage and connect with us," he said. "When I was with the federal government, we would find a solution to something ... and then we'd go to another agency and they'd say, 'Ah, we're really struggling with this problem,' and we were like, 'We solved that a year ago,' but there was no connection."

Past projects of Culatta's include Education Datapalooza, a recurring event designed to share ideas, bridge institutions and highlight work in open data. Culatta also led the Future Ready District Pledge, a nationwide commitment taken by more than 2,000 superintendents to prepare their schools for the future by using new technologies. He's promoted the use of cost-saving, open educational materials and encouraged governments to procure from smaller companies for savings, both during his time at the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

"Our team really built a whole bunch of new ways to just get things done," he said. "And so I think those are levers I have learned are very effective and I'm looking forward to applying those in my new role and discovering more I'm sure."

Culatta is also now a design resident at human-centered design firm IDEO.

"One of the things that is always very frustrating for me is that most of our processes are designed around things that are most convenient for government and not around what is most convenient for citizens," he said. "So I'd love to think about how we can shift that a bit."

Culatta said he also plans to work with a group called The Collaborative, a Rhode Island-based collaboration between the state's 11 colleges and universities. Instead of competing for funding, they've made a commitment to cooperate, he said.

"That's a big deal," he said. "For someone not familiar with the higher ed system, that may seem kind of obvious, but I don't know anywhere else where that's happened."

Like many states, Rhode Island struggles to maintain its bridges and roads. Maybe, he said, the top minds at his states learning and research institutions can work together to change that.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.