Four Lessons for State Government Innovation

Without a doubt, the private sector and Chief Information Officers (CIOs) with business backgrounds have much to offer the public sector in terms of creating innovation. But things are different in the public sector. While state and federal government have experimented with hiring high-profile private sector CIOs and turning them loose to be innovative, this model is rarely associated with success. As a result, the public sector has generally failed to replicate the successful outcomes that are often seen in the private sector, despite hiring away highly innovative private sector CIOs.

It Takes a Team

Our prior innovation research has successfully uncovered the role of the CIO, state legislature, and governor in creating successful innovation at the state level and has identified how these innovations lead to positive organizational outcomes. This research shows that successful innovation in the public sector requires not only the right CIO but senior elected officials, legislatures, oversight bodies, contractors and the general public. Far from flourishing in solitude, public sector innovation requires significant collaboration.

As a result of this work, we have developed several lessons for state government to become innovative.

  1. States have to be open to sharing innovation amongst each other. Because this is the public sector, there is no reason for closing ranks within the state and true sharing of innovations ultimately benefit all states. As one CIO told us, “I am the only game in town. It’s not like you can go to Nevada to get a California driver’s license!”
  2. States have to be open to new models of innovation development. Rather than the traditional model of contracting, states need to leverage atypical sources of expertise, including crowdsourcing and universities. For example, SpeakUpAustin, a citizen engagement portal sponsored by the City of Austin Texas, actively solicits citizen suggestions to improve the city and then, as appropriate, leverages those people to crowdsource a solution.
  3. States need to better leverage existing assets rather than look to new assets. At present, a great deal of information is locked up within state data centers and unlocking this information is a cost-effective and creative way to be innovative. For example, Oklahoma, upon realizing that its enterprise resource planning system held a trove of information, opened up the data to its citizens to foster transparency ( By simply sharing already collected information, Oklahoma was able to innovatively respond to citizen demands for transparency at a relatively low cost.
  4. The CIO has to engage continuously with the governor, the legislature and other departments within state government. Innovation happens as a result of planning, socialization and interactions with other key players in state government. The “go it alone” strategy is rarely successful.

Our data show that the process of innovation yields unmistakable benefits but, unfortunately, the benefits only survive for one to two years. As a result, the mindset towards innovation needs to change. These lessons can help.