MeriTalk recently connected with Dan Chenok, executive director at IBM’s Center for The Business of Government, to discuss the center’s recent “Innovation and Emerging Technologies in Government” research, authored by Alan Shark. This article takes a deeper look at the use cases outlined in the report, the five key mindsets that emerged from the interviews, and the connection found between innovation and technology.
MeriTalk: IBM’s recent “Innovation and Emerging Technologies in Government” report covers more than a dozen agencies across Federal, state, and local governments, and conducted interviews with leading innovators. Can you talk a little bit about what was involved in putting this report together?
Chenok: At the IBM Center for The Business of Government, we’ve seen at the Federal, state, and local levels anecdotal examples of leaders who have been making a difference with overcoming obstacles, leading teams, and driving innovation by utilizing technology for a purpose. The technology helps strengthen the mission of their organization, improve customer service, and deliver on important priorities – ranging from civilian agency work to national defense and the intelligence community. With the report, we wanted to look across these anecdotal examples and see if a pattern could be identified. Regardless of agency or mission space, we wanted to see if there are certain keys to successful innovation in the public sector.
MeriTalk: Are there agencies interviewed for the report that you would like to highlight?
Chenok: The report is divided into three sections. The first section discusses technology and sets a baseline for what we mean by intelligent automation, artificial intelligence, blockchain, hybrid cloud, and other technologies.
The second half of the report presents a series of case studies about different agencies at varying levels of government, and the work they’ve done as innovators. They’re all interesting stories, but I will highlight two specifically. At the Federal level, the General Services Administration (GSA) and its chief information officer, David Shive, drove a cloud migration that continued the work of his predecessors in steering the agency toward the use of modern platforms and putting the people behind that migration. Any technology transformation is only as good as the ability of the people who interact with it, and Dave highlighted GSA’s human-centered transformation. Similarly at GSA, people were key to a program they have called 10x – a shark tank-type program led by Nico Papafil. It’s a seed funding program where agency members put forward ideas to go through a competitor review. The program then provides seed money to innovate on the best ideas.
At the state level, Sonoma County, California – predominantly known for its phenomenal wine – also has an interesting program that uses technology to create an interactive and ongoing engagement experience for citizens receiving services through the county. They call the program ACCESS, which involves coordinated care for self-sufficiency.
MeriTalk: The report notes that “innovation does not always rely on technology.” What does this mean – can you elaborate?
Chenok: Right – it’s not about the technology, it’s about the problem that government is trying to solve. You need to first identify what the agency is trying to accomplish. Then, how do you innovate to achieve that? The innovation might not involve technology at all, it might just be streamlining a process or creating a new organizational framework to get parts of the organization working together and incentivized in a common way. In the government, innovation operates at scale. Agencies serve tens of thousands or millions of people – or in some cases like Social Security or Medicare, hundreds of millions – so there needs to be a pathway to scale innovation. That starts from an idea, then to a prototype, to a model that works at a programmatic level, and to a full-scale program delivery model. Having this pathway is just as important as getting the technology right.
MeriTalk: How are government leaders recognizing the need for new technology? And how are these agencies finding the funding to implement, or even test, these new technologies and ideas?
Chenok: Today, we are certainly in an era and environment where everything has been accelerated – digital transformation is now with us in real time as we live in this virtual world. One of the principles of how leaders started to recognize the need for new technology goes back to the last question, where we talk about user centricity and identifying the problem from the user’s perspective. That’s one way to think about what the right technology to address that problem is, which might be the first step in streamlining the process. The second piece is understanding how to leverage commercial best practices. What are lessons that government can learn from industry, or even from other levels of government? It is important for government agencies to see how ideas have worked in practice and adapt them to their own mission. Then, you actually apply the artificial intelligence or robotic process automation to understand how to address that problem. Then, the third part of this question concerns funding. As we all know, the technology budget for government operates like much of the government budget, which is on a long time horizon. The government often plans for money spent three years later. Things like the Technology Modernization Fund at the Federal level allow for experimentation and more flexible procurement models.
MeriTalk: Switching gears – let’s talk about the five basic mindsets that emerged from the interviews: entrepreneurial, collaborative, adaptive, mastery of emerging technologies, and leadership. Can you explain what each of these mindsets are, and how they are all considered keys to success?
Chenok: Having an entrepreneurial mindset means having a passion for creativity and an understanding of how to get things off the ground – being able to understand a way to experiment. Even in a system prescribed by regulation and existing policy, there’s a way to move forward. Also, in terms of tolerating failure – understanding that when you try new things, a lot of it is not going to work. Having an entrepreneurial mindset means learning from that experience and moving forward. It’s often said that Thomas Edison failed many times before he invented the light bulb, but he would comment that each time he learned something.
Next is a collaborative mindset. It is not just about the entrepreneur, it’s about the team the entrepreneur builds. Usually, that team does not all work for the entrepreneur – it may involve people from different parts of the organization, different parts of the agency, part of the contract workforce, and maybe even user groups who receive services. Crossing organizational and sectoral boundaries is important, as is understanding that when a program moves forward, everybody in the value chain moves forward.
The next mindset the report talked about was the adaptive mindset. This is obviously made very apparent in the response to recovery efforts around COVID-19, where the government had to adapt very quickly. It is about seeing a result and being flexible and agile to respond to the result.
In the next mindset, we cover innovation that does involve technology. This includes understanding a suite of new technologies that we’ve been referring to as “intelligent automation,” where robotics process automation, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and similar technologies are being driven across flexible and hybrid cloud infrastructures. This mindset is about having a leader that understands what that technology suite looks like, where technology is going in future years, and the limits of how far technology can bring you. For example, you want AI to augment human decision making, not replace human decision making.
The final mindset we talk about is leadership. This is not much different from great leaders in any setting, including technology, business, military, or diplomacy. This mindset shows attributes like inspiration – while the leader sets the vision, but it’s also important to understand that it’s really about the team. One of the things that Alan found in all successful innovators was, in his words, “placing the ego at the entrance door.” The leader sets the vision but doesn’t need to take all the credit.
MeriTalk: After talking to these agencies, were there any other common themes, similarities, or drivers to note that were not considered one of the five key mindsets?
Chenok: I would note a concept of emotional intelligence. All of these leaders are smart. They all understand technology, and they understand that in order to implement it they will be working with a set of people who all have different motivations and different incentives. Understanding what makes those people tick, and how to bring them together as a team to create a set of aligned incentives, is important.
View IBM’s full “Innovation and Emerging Technologies in Government” report.