Aug 24 2016

Understanding the Difference Between Innovation and Modernization

Jennifer Pahlka has a compelling perspective on how state and local governments should organize and measure innovation.

It’s easy to get lost among technology buzzwords. Because IT has the power to radically transform the way people work and live, we tend to get excited about the changes technology brings and append these bumper-sticker buzzwords to tech in ways that may not always be accurate.

Perhaps chief among the IT buzzword offenders these days is the word “innovation.”

Everyone wants to be seen as an innovator or a steward of innovation. We hold innovators up as pioneers and prophets. At the state and local level, use of the word runs rampant in new titles such as chief innovation officer, as governments try to figure out how to purposefully and consistently instill innovation into everyday processes and cultures.

These are all good things. But there’s danger in confusing innovation with modernization, warns Jennifer Pahlka in a blog post earlier this year.

Pahlka, who now serves as founder and CEO of Code for America, is all too familiar with government IT, having served as U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration.

As the roles and responsibilities under CIOs and CTOs shift, and as chief innovation officers (or CInnOs) become more common, it’s important to distinguish between true IT innovation projects and necessary IT modernization projects. And Pahlka believes there’s a true risk in confusing one for the other.

Increasingly, CInnOs are being appointed with “fix the website(s)” as one of their many mandates. If you read my earlier piece, you know that I’m friendly to a strategy that assigns citizen-facing digital services (aka websites and/or mobile apps) to a Digital Services lead who specializes in understanding and meeting user needs, and often works alongside, under, or (very rarely) over, a Chief Information Officer. There is no inherent reason someone qualified to be a Chief Innovation Officer (however defined) is not competent to lead digital services. But there is a huge danger in using the word “innovation” to describe the practices that result in websites that work.

The problem is that if you want “government technology as good as what we have at home,” (as Ben Terrett says) you’re going to have to do things like move to the cloud and test prototypes with actual users. That’s not innovation. That’s just how tech works today. The practices and tools that result in good digital services vary from organization to organization, to be sure, but there is a lot in common that the private sector, and increasingly the public sector, pretty much agree on as standard. When we frame these practices as somehow cutting-edge, risky, or non-standard, we do the mission a great disservice.

The default response to this feedback is that what is considered innovative in the private sector and in the public sector is relative. But that assumes a position that government technology must be — and always will be — behind, which Pahlka outright rejects.

I’ve frequently heard a defense for using the “innovation” label on what I’d call “the basics” in government simply because the term should be seen as relative. “Sure, Jen,” they say, “but you don’t realize how far behind we are here. This IS innovation for us.”

I don’t buy this, because it sells government short, and because it unnecessarily mystifies practices that are simply that: practices an organization can choose to adopt. Using the word innovation here implies that you need some sort of genius, charismatic Steve Jobs figure hanging out in City Hall if you want good digital services. You don’t. You just need to throw out your old operating manual and get the new one.

If your government agency is considering developing an innovation office or establishing a role that focuses on innovation, it’s important that the organization defines what innovation is and sets the bar at the appropriate level — and make sure that the work assigned to CIOs, CTOs and CInnOs is distributed and assigned appropriately. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but redundancies and overlap can lead to inefficiencies and confusion.

If innovators are to be held in the high esteem that they currently enjoy, it should be for more than just playing catch-up with the rest of the technology world.


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