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Michigan CTO Divulges How to Introduce Agility into Local Government

Making it OK to fail could be the key to making state agencies more efficient.

A new theme is emerging in government IT, “and that theme is this recognition that you must be super agile in the new world that’s occurring,” said VMWare chief technology officer Ray O’Farrell during a panel exploring innovation and agility at the FedScoop Public Sector Innovation Summit on Wednesday.

But while new technologies can bring increased efficiencies to government agencies, putting the right people and processes in place to effectively leverage novel solutions is easier said than done.

“There’s a culture in government because of taxpayer dollars, and rightfully so, that we don’t want to waste the money, we don’t want to make mistakes and we want to make sure that things are going as smoothly as possible,” said Michigan CTO Rod Davenport during the panel. “But some experimentation is necessary both for the learning of the staff and also so the organization can be exposed to these new technologies and get a better understanding of how they work.”

Led by a directive from the governor, Michigan is forging ahead on a path to become more effective and efficient in delivering government services, through mobile-first initiatives, Big Data and cloud technology. Michigan recently developed and released a personalized and predictive application for citizens that links them to government information and resources. The state is also embarking on a cybersecurity strategy that stresses the use of data analytics.

And while there is often a certain amount of cultural pushback around new technology, Davenport believes that piggybacking off of forward-thinking employees can be a way to foster a positive culture around piloting tools.

“What I try to do is to leverage the natural tendency from IT folks to like technology — they tend to be early adopters; the first iPhones were generally in the pockets of those people — and I try to create an environment where we could have a spirit of experimentation using some pilots of technologies,” Davenport says. “Lab environments, proofs of concept, those sorts of things help to bridge that gap both from the technology side and from the agency side.”

And while Davenport notes that a popular sentiment is that innovation conflates to invention, this isn’t quite the case with most government agencies.

“What we do in state government is lowercase ‘I’ innovation. We’re not making new cars. We’re not Apple, we’re not inventing iPads. But what we do is take technology that exists and apply it in new ways for us,” he says.

Michigan may not be the first state to apply technology in a new way, but introducing tech to an agency, organization or business for a new purpose also means embracing a culture of failure.

“You need to have some tolerance for things maybe not going as planned,” Davenport says.

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May 18 2017

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