SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

NJ’s first CIO explains how technology can improve government services

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

Can the government harness technology to improve government services? That’s the task assigned New Jersey’s first chief innovation officer. Beth Simone Noveck recently sat down with Correspondent Briana Vannozzi.

Noveck: I was the first deputy chief technology officer and headed up this program from the White House Open Government Initiative. So you can imagine the idea — imagine that the very first day that I started, we wanted to decide what was going to be our policy of open government. What were we actually going to do? So we said, consistent with our name, Open Government, we’re going to actually ask people what we should do and solicit their good ideas.

Vannozzi: Which is somewhat of a foreign concept in the government.

Noveck: We put up a blog with comments on the White House website. You’ll have a hard time finding that now, and that was a bit of a crazy maneuver. We not only asked the public what we should do, but for the very first time we actually had the radical idea, at that point, of actually asking the government employees. People who actually work in public service every single day, what can we actually do to use technology to do a better job?

Vannozzi: What’s the benefit to having their input, and why has the public sector been so hesitant to go that route before?

Noveck: So I think we’ve come a long way in how we’ve done things. We’ve been very, very hesitant to do that because, frankly, for 100 years we built up the idea that we should have a professional public service, and that frankly too much input from the public — we worry about the influence and the bad influence that can come from, let’s say, you know, corrupt influences, and so we want to shield people off. We want our public servants to be independent, to act legitimately, to act in the public’s best interest, and to act in everybody’s best interest without being unduly influenced, let’s say by money or corruption. So we’ve set up a lot of rules in the past and a lot of cultural practices that have led to this very closed door way of working. We’ve come in recent years to understand that we actually don’t have all the answers sitting inside government, and then in fact, we have to be open to good ideas from individuals, from businesses, from universities, from the smart people that are to our left and to our right, who really have the expertise. That expertise, yes, it may be so-called credentialed expertise, like a diploma or a degree, but it may just be the lived experience from living in a community, from suffering a disease in a particular place. Look, if I have diabetes, I have a lot of knowledge about what it means to have diabetes and a lot of expertise that comes from that.

Vannozzi: So connecting those folks.

Noveck: Right. I know a lot more potentially than the intern who sits in government, who may never have started a business.

Vannozzi: Are we ready to embrace this idea? And not only that idea, to use data and analytics so that we can track those trends and make services with constituents better?

Noveck: Yeah the great part is, thanks to some of the early work that we did at the national level many years ago — the national level, countries around the world, states like New Jersey all have created, now, an open data portal. We have come to understand the practice that we have to actually put out the data that we create. But more importantly that we have to start to use that data and learn from it — learn from those analytics — to identify how we can do a better job. And it’s the combination of the two: data on the one hand and collective intelligence — our smarts and our good ideas, and that of our neighbors. The two put together are what are going to make for a better, more effective, more efficient government.

Vannozzi: I read a line, it said, you know, it’s easier to compare pubs than public schools, hotels than hospitals. You know, our government is just run so differently. So we should expect to see big changes then, once the government starts to embrace these ideas.

Noveck: You should have every right to expect it and to demand it, and we should check in a year, and in two years, three years as we move along to see how we’ve delivered against those promises, those expectations. I have them for myself, and my team has it and I think people should have it from us. The great part is I get to collaborate with a lot of really smart, talented and eager people in the governor’s office and across the administration here, across the public sector, and I’m just really excited for all the things we can do.

Vannozzi: With higher ed as well, with the private sector, realizing that you’ve only been on the job, officially, in the official capacity for a couple of weeks, where do you see New Jersey lacking and what do you plan to tackle first?

Noveck: So I think New Jersey, we have to be fair that New Jersey has very good company among all states in terms of the absences, in terms of the gaps that it faces in using technology, in using data, in using human intelligence to improve how we deliver services. We are not alone, you know, we are not really alone in this situation at all. I think every government, especially New Jersey, particularly because we have so much talent here, has the right to expect and to do a better job at how we deliver citizen services, how we tap the intelligence of people that we have to solve problems in new ways, and to develop policy in new ways. I think, you know, the potential is really there to do — we are already doing a lot — and to do a lot more. And what’s exciting is that Gov. Murphy is really making the investment in the innovation economy and in innovation more broadly — really a priority of his administration.