Meet New Jersey’s first chief innovation officer

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy ran on a promise of building an innovation economy and has backed it up by appointing the state’s first-ever CIO, or chief innovation officer. To explain what that means, Beth Simone Noveck recently sat down with Correspondent Briana Vannozzi.

Vannozzi: We’ve heard of a chief technology information officer. What’s the role of an innovation officer?

Noveck: Right, so New Jersey is lucky to also have a wonderful chief technology officer. The idea of creating a chief innovation officer is really in sort of a policy capacity, working with the governor and with his team across the agencies to identify how we can use tech, data and innovation to help advance our core policy priorities.

Vannozzi: When we think about government, though, we often think of red tape, bureaucracy, outdated technology. So how do we take this idea, which started really with the tech world and then to corporations, to the public sector?

Noveck: Right, so you’re exactly right that we’ve come, as we now have cellphones in each of our pockets and computers at our desktops. We’ve come to have a certain expectation for what we can do, and for the ease of doing business and working that we’ve come to expect from our business life, from our cultural life. We have the right to expect exactly the same thing from our government. So very much the chief innovation officer role is to bring a focus to and amplify our efforts to modernize how government works; to ensure that citizen services and they way they get delivered to the residents of New Jersey, are really done in a 21st century way — that they’re agile and quick, that they’re easy to use. And that’s not an easy job, of course. It will be a big transition, but the goal is to actually bring government into the 21st century. Not only by changing the technology, but more importantly by changing the mindset and the skill set of how we do things.

Vannozzi: How do you do that? What are the examples of, sort of, combining those forces, if you will?

Noveck: Well, I think first and foremost, one of the things that we’ve learned, and we’ve taken a page here from some of the best businesses, is that we actually have to engage in the practices of what some people call human-centred design. That is to say, we have to actually ask the people we serve how we can do a better job. You know who knows the best way actually to deliver a better government service? It’s the people, not only who receive them, but the people who work on the front lines, in the offices serving citizens. The public servants, who do so diligently, working in the public interest often have the best ideas about how to do that better. So it’s not us, whether we sit in Trenton, or Washington, or some capital somewhere, but it’s the people out there in the field who are going to have the best ideas.

Vannozzi: Sort of a coproducing of government, you’ve called it. I watched one of your TED talks from 2012 in preparing for this and you talked about having that citizen input, but also about the distinction between open government and transparent government. What’s the difference?

Noveck: So transparent government is a piece of an open government. Obviously, we want government to function, as they say, in the sunlight, in the sunshine. People should know what their government does — that’s our right in a democracy. And technology can help with that, in terms of being able to share data about government services, about government spending, about how things are working. That’s all of our right to have that information, but that by itself is not enough. We have to, in my view, make government really a two-way conversation between those who work in government and those whom we serve — which is to have that conversation about how we can do a better job. And it’s not just services; it’s actually solving the problems that we all face. And, it’s really engaging people. You know, one of the great things we have in the state is an incredibly lot of talented and smart people. We have one of the states with the highest rates of college-educated people. We have one the highest rates of millennials who’ve gone to college. We have incredibly innovative people and businesses in the state. And so, what we want to do actually is to tap that innovation and expertise to do two things: one is to grow the innovation economy, to grow new businesses, to help support entrepreneurs; but also to help get good ideas and advice and with modernizing how we actually run government. So really being in this innovation role is about doing those two things: focusing both on the external questions of how we use innovation to grow the economy, especially the innovation economy. But then also how we bring those ideas inside government to actually do a better job.

Vannozzi: What’s a real-world example of what that might look like? I know the governor in his announcement said, you know, we’re looking to states like Massachusetts and other areas that have really embraced this idea. What’s an example of what that might look like here?

Noveck: There are two fronts here. One is obviously, the external-facing, and that’s where we are already doing a lot in terms of, for example, supporting $20 million for community college grants to help invest in the talent that we have in this state. In terms of the EDA’s new innovation challenge, where they’re giving up to $500,000 now to innovators and communities to start new businesses; $30 million to modernize some of our workforce development tools to help people retrain and re-skill for the innovation jobs. So there’s lots that’s already underway and more that we’re going to do to try and invest, especially in the talent that we have in the state. At the same time, what that looks like concretely, in terms of internal modernization, is exactly the kinds of things that you think of — building a website that creates one place where a company, for example, can find all the forms that it needs, all the answers that it needs to start a new business. And at the same time working on doing similar kinds of services for people, and not just those who are the most affluent and the richest, like businesses, but also for the people who are most in need — people who need the services that government delivers, to make it easier and more dignified for them to actually receive the services to which they’re entitled, and frankly more efficient and cheaper for government to deliver by making it simpler.

Vannozzi: One thing to have that information, another to make it user-friendly and interface with the citizens.

Noveck: Absolutely. Why should a citizen have to know — is it the state of New Jersey, is it a federal issue, is it a local issue, which agency am I supposed to go to? The best governments in this space are really ones who are redesigning services to serve what some people call the life-cycle journey of the citizen. So I’ve just had a baby — what are all the things that I might need at that point in time? I just lost my job — what are all the resources that I might be able to avail myself of? And the great thing is that the state is in a unique position to provide independent, authoritative advice to people and really help in the public interest, which is what people need and what they demand from us.