Are Rock Star CIOs the Secret to Public Innovation?

A new mandate has just landed on the desk of state Chief Information Officers (CIOs): innovate or else. Innovation is now a basic job requirement for public sector CIOs. Innovation isn’t new in the private sector but it is making news in the public sector. In December, New York launched its ambitious New York’s State Health Innovation Plan which relies on technology to achieve ambitious reforms. CIOs are now considered critical, if not lead, participants.

Rock Star Innovators

Vivek Kundra, former CIO of the United States, openly proclaimed the need for “rock stars” to help transform government technology based on a belief that the same old thinking could not solve today’s problems. Rock star CIOs are recruits lured from the private sector that states in dire need of innovation convince to move into public service. These rock stars bring with them a history of being innovative in industry but can lack the detailed understanding of the public sector required to navigate its complexities. All too often, these CIOs find themselves stymied by the very bureaucracy in which they were hired to innovate.

To better understand state level innovation we examined data from the NASCIO, LinkedIn, the Pew Research Center and the Center for Digital Government. Our findings include:

  1. Respected CIOs who have experience working in the state have more success implementing innovation. Far from being part of the problem, these long-tenured CIOs know how to get innovation done within the state.
  2. Relationships matter. The CIO, far from a rogue actor, needs to have positive and long-standing relationships with the governor and the legislature. Innovation depends upon these three entities coordinating their efforts.
  3. Innovation can be a “Hail Mary” pass. Our data show that it is states with low income and low educational attainment that are most willing to try innovations. We speculate that innovation is a joint high-risk/high-reward effort by the CIO, legislature, and governor to address systemic problems within the state. And, our data show, it works. States that are innovative receive an immediate bump in performance.
  4. CIOs should focus on building long-term innovation processes rather than short-term interventions. Sadly, the benefits from innovation are relatively short-lived (one to two years according to our data). As a result, innovation planning and implementation has to shift from a “one and done” to a process orientation. This places substantial pressure on the CIO to continuously identify and sponsor innovation.

In the current political environment, states face clear pressures to be innovative. Many states face some limiting factors that need to be addressed to allow innovation to flourish.

States have seen uneven gains in innovation. In a 2013 survey by the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) and Grant Thornton, while 36 states reported making some use of cloud technology, only 3 states reported being heavily invested in it and another 11 states reported themselves as investigating it. In contrast, an early 2013 survey of IT leaders showed that over half of U.S. businesses were using private and public clouds in a dedicated manner.

Author’s Note: We are eager to know what is working and what needs to be done to allow successful innovation in this space. Please reach out to us to comment and we look forward to engaging you as this research progresses.