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Can Maryland's other "CIO" cultivate innovation in government?

Bryan Sivak looks for ways to change the status quo.

Bryan Sivak at OSCON 2010When Maryland hired Bryan Sivak last April as the state’s chief innovation officer, the role had yet to be defined in government. After all, like most other states in the union, Maryland had never had a chief innovation officer before.

Sivak told TechPresident on his second day at work that he wanted to define what it means to build a system for innovation in government:

If you can systemize what it means to be innovative, what it means to challenge the status quo without a budget, without a lot of resources, then you’ve created something that can be replicated anywhere.

Months later, Sivak (@BryanSivak) has been learning — and sharing — as he goes. That doesn’t mean he walked into the role without ideas about how government could be more innovative. Anything but. Sivak’s years in the software industry and his tenure as the District of Columbia’s chief technology officer equipped him with plenty of ideas, along with some recognition as a Gov 2.0 Hero from Govfresh.

Sivak was a genuine change agent during his tenure in DC. As DCist reported, Sivak oversaw the development of several projects while he was in office, like the District’s online service request center and “the incredibly useful TrackDC.”

Citizensourcing better ideas

One of the best ideas that Sivak brought to his new gig was culled directly from the open government movement: using collective intelligence to solve problems.

“My job is to fight against the entrenched status quo,” said Sivak in an interview this winter. “I’m not a subject expert in 99% of issues. The people who do those jobs, live and breathe them, do know what’s happening. There are thousands and thousands of people asking ‘why can’t we do this this way? My job is to find them, help them, get them discovered, and connect them.”

That includes both internal and external efforts, like a pilot partnership with citizens to report downed trees last year.

An experiment with SeeClickFix during Hurricane Irene in August 2011 had a number of positive effects, explained Sivak. “It made emergency management people realize that they needed to look at this stuff,” he said. “Our intention was to get people thinking. The new question is now, ‘How do we figure out how to use it?’ They’re thinking about how to integrate it into their process.”

Gathering ideas for making government work better from the public presents some challenges. For instance, widespread public frustration with the public sector can also make citizensourcing efforts a headache to architect and govern. Sivak suggested trying to get upset citizens involved in addressing the problems they highlight in public comments.

“Raise the issue, then channel the negative reactions into fixing the issues,” he said. “Why not get involved? There are millions of civil servants trying to do the right thing every day.”

In general, Sivak said, “the vast majority of people are there to do a good job. The problem is rules and regulations built up over centuries that prevent us from doing that the best way.”

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Doing more with less

If innovation is driven by resource constraints, by “doing more with less,” Sivak will be in the right place at the right time. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s 2012 budget included billions in proposed cuts, including hundreds of millions pared from state agencies. More difficult decisions will be in the 2013 budget as well.

The challenge now is how to bring ideas to fruition in the context of state government, where entrenched bureaucracy, culture, aging legacy IT systems and more prosaic challenges around regulations stand in the way.

One clear direction is to find cost savings in modern IT, where possible. Moving government IT systems into the cloud won’t be appropriate in all circumstances. Enterprise email, however, appears to be a ripe area for migration. Maryland is moving to the cloud for email, specifically to Google Apps for Enterprise.

This will merge 57 systems into one, said Sivak. “Everyone is really jazzed.” The General Services Agency saved an estimated $11 million for 13,000 employees, according to Sivak. “We hope to save more. People don’t factor in upgrade costs.”

He’s found, however, that legacy IT systems aren’t the most significant hindrance to innovation in government. “When I started public service [in D.C. government], procurement and HR were the things I was least interested in,” said Sivak. “Now, they are the things I’m most interested in. Fix them and you fix many of the problems.”

The problem with reform of these areas, however, is that it’s neither a particularly sexy issue for politicians to run on in election years nor focus upon in office. Sivak told TechPresident last year “that to be successful with technology initiatives, you need to attack the underlying culture and process first.”

Given the necessary focus on the economy and job creation, the Maryland governor’s office is also thinking about how to attract and sustain entrepreneurs and small businesses. “We’re also working on making research and development benefit the state more,” Sivak said. “Maryland is near the top of R&D spending but very low on commercializing the outcomes.”

In an extended interview conducted via email (portions posted below), Sivak expanded further about his view of innovation, what’s on his task list and some of the projects that he’s been working on to date.

How do you define innovation? What pockets of innovation in government inspire you?

Bryan Sivak: Innovation is an overused term in nearly every vertical — both the public and private sectors — which is why a definition is important. My current working definition is something like this:

Innovation challenges existing processes and systems, resulting in the injection, rapid execution and validation of new ideas into the ecosystem. In short, innovation asks “why?” a lot.

Note that this is my current working definition and might change without notice.

What measures has Maryland taken to attract and retain startups?

Bryan Sivak: There are a number of entities across the state that are focused on Maryland’s startup ecosystem. Many are on the local level and the private academic side (incubators, accelerators, etc.), but as a state we have organizations that are — at least partially — focused on this as well. TEDCO, for example, is a quasi-public entity focused on encouraging technology development across the state. And the Department of Business and Economic Development has a number of people who are focused on building the state’s startup infrastructure.

One of the things I’ve been focusing on is the “commercialization gap,” specifically the fact that Maryland ranks No. 1 per capita in PhD scientists and engineers, No. 1 in federal research and development dollars per capita, and No. 1 in the best public schools in the country, but it is ranked No. 37 in terms of entrepreneurial activity. We are working on coming up with a package to address this gap and to help commercialize technologies that are a result of R&D investment into our academic and research institutions.

What about the cybersecurity industry?

Cybersecurity is a big deal in Maryland, and in 2010, the Department of Business and Economic Development released its Cyber Maryland plan, which contains 10 priorities that the state is working on to make Maryland the cybersecurity hub of the U.S. Given the preponderance of talent and specific institutions in the state, it makes a ton of sense and builds on assets we already have in place.

What have you learned from Maryland’s crowdsourcing efforts to date?

Bryan Sivak: We’ve really just started to dip our toes in the crowdsourcing waters, but it’s been very interesting so far. The desire is there — people definitely want to contribute — but what’s become very clear is that we need a process in place on the back end to handle incoming items. On the public safety front, for example, most of the issues that get reported by citizens will be dealt with by the locals, as opposed to the state. We need a mechanism for issues to be reported and tracked in a single interface but acted upon by the appropriate entity.

This is much easier on the local side since all groups are theoretically on the same page. We are also building ad-hoc processes on the fly to handle responses to other crowdsourced inputs. For example, we recently asked citizens and businesses for ideas for regulatory reform in the state. In order to make sure these inputs were handled correctly, we created a manual, human-based process to filter the ideas and make sure the right people at the right agencies saw them. This worked well for this initiative, but it is obviously not scalable for implementation on a broad scale.

The conclusion is that the desire and ability for people external to the government to contribute is not going to decrease, so if we are proactive on this issue and try to stay ahead of or with the curve, everyone — government, residents, and businesses — will benefit.

What roles do data and analytics play in Maryland’s governance processes and policy making?

Bryan Sivak: They play huge roles. The governor [Martin O'Malley] is well known for his belief in data-driven decision making, which was the impetus behind the creation of CitiStat in Baltimore and StateStat in Maryland. We use dashboards to track nearly every initiative, and this data features prominently in almost every policy discussion. As an example, check out the Governor’s Delivery Unit website, where we publish a good amount of analysis we use to track achievement of goals. We are now working on building a robust data warehouse that will not only enable us to provide a deeper level of analysis on the fly, and on both a preset and an ad-hoc basis, but also give us the added benefit of easily publishing raw data to the community at large.

What have you learned through StateStat? How can you realize more value from it through automation?

Bryan Sivak: The StateStat program is incredibly effective in terms of focusing agencies on a set of desired outcomes and rigorously tracking their progress. One of the big challenges, however, is data collection and analysis. Currently, most of the data is collected by hand and entered into Excel spreadsheets for analysis and distribution. This was a great mechanism to get the program up and running, but by building the data warehouse, we will be able to automate a great deal of the data collection and processing that is currently being done manually. We also hope that by connecting data sources directly to the warehouse, we’ll be able to get a much more real-time view of the leading indicators and have dashboards that reflect the current moment, as opposed to historical data.

This interview was edited and condensed. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.

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