Management & Labor

Maryland’s New Chief Innovation Officer Speaks Out

Bryan Sivak speaks about why failure is a necessary part of innovation.
by | June 7, 2011
 

Former District of Columbia Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak may be best known for implementing tech initiatives like the accountability portal TrackDC. But his new gig as Maryland's first Chief Innovation Officer may be his most challenging yet.

Sivak has been tasked with helping to quickly implement some of Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature initiatives like setting up the best health insurance exchange in the country and addressing issues like public safety, broadband access and engaging citizens in their government via technology and social media.

Though it's been a mere six weeks since he started, Sivak says he's looking forward to ushering in an open mentality when it comes to the challenges of innovating. In a phone interview in late May, Sivak spoke about the differences he sees in working for different levels of government and why failure is a necessary part of innovation in this edited transcript.

You've just started as Maryland's first Chief Innovation Officer. In what ways has working for a state differed from working for a city?

There are some very interesting differences between the state and local levels. Many are pretty obvious, but I think they're hard to grasp until you've done both. You're not dealing with things like potholes and daily mass transit systems, so it definitely takes longer to see the impacts of many decisions and actions you take. But the potential scope of any decision or action is much broader. I think with the right attitudes of the people running the operational agencies (the cabinet secretaries and other folks in the governor's office), there are some very direct and tangible actions that can be seen relatively quickly and easily. It just depends on what you're looking to do and how you're looking to do it.

Do you take that city-minded viewpoint and use it in your new role? Does it change the way you work at the state level?

I've been approaching this very much the same way I was approaching it at the city level. I think given what I'm trying to do, a lot of the activities are going to be similar. Many of the people in the O'Malley administration also came from the city level. A lot of people were working with him when he was the mayor of Baltimore. The experiences that I have and that a lot of the other folks in the administration have are very similar.

Do you think there's a strength in that?

Absolutely. When you're running and doing work in a city, I think there's a very strong connection to the people and to tangible things that you can do to affect their lives in a beneficial way. It's much more personal. You're interacting with individuals on a more regular basis and that has to come with you when you move up the ladder. As you scale these different jurisdictional boundaries, it gets less personal. But I think those personal stories and contacts bring you back down. They're the things that remind you of why you're doing this in the first place.

In what ways will you use your experience as the District's CTO in your new role?

In order to really do some of the things I'm trying to do, I need to get the cabinet secretaries to actually work with me and want to try some of these new ideas. I think that my experience running an agency -- obviously not as big, but still a pretty large operation -- does give me some street cred, if you will. I can go to a cabinet secretary and say, "Look, I've done your job at least in a similar fashion, so I know what you're facing. I understand how hard it can be to try anything new and different with the challenges of a day-to-day operation." But I think that's where I can help. That's where I can come in and say, "There are different ways of doing things that are complementary to achieving the goals of your organization and your operation, and we can work on all of those things."

Can you talk about some of these new things you're trying?

One side of it is looking at a series of objectives the governor has. It's kind of a fascinating administration because he's term-limited, so he's really got to execute as quickly as he can on a number of different things. I'm working on trying to help look at some of these signature initiatives and get them done in a relatively quick time frame. For example, the governor wants Maryland to be the No. 1 state for health care in the country. As part of that, we've got these early adopter grants from the federal government to build this health insurance exchange that needs to be set up by 2014. Our goal is to set up the best one out there -- the one that helps the most people and that does everything as well as we can possibly imagine it.

There are a whole bunch of other things around public safety. The governor is really big on interoperability and making sure people can communicate with each other in times of crisis. We've got lots of different projects happening right now in the public safety arena that need to be knit together in a seamless and cohesive fashion.

Broadband is something I focused on quite heavily in D.C., and digital divide issues. That's another thing that's big in Maryland right now, so I'm working on that. I'm trying to push different agencies to take advantage of new technologies to capture citizen feedback or communication around various issues ... ways of leveraging social media to both get information from people and push info to people -- a lot around the standard WeGov, Gov 2.0, transparency things.

What does the "Chief Innovation Officer" title mean as far as your role in getting things done?

There are a number of different ways to define the term, or the concept of innovation within government. What I'm explaining to people as an overall mission [is] a single statement: Innovation means challenging the status quo, wherever it exists. I think that statement can be applied in a number of ways. One obvious way is breaking through years of entrenched bureaucracy and the "because that's how that's always been done" attitude. Another way is to push people, especially leaders at agencies or managers of large groups of people, to be more risk-tolerant and to understand that failure is not only an option, but it's sometimes a necessity to actually move some things forward -- as long as that failure is fast and cheap.

I read an article where you said one of your biggest challenges will be trying to show people that there are different ways of doing things, that failure's OK and it's not going to get them fired. Can you explain why that's so important?

When I first started in government a couple of years ago, I was expecting to see the [stereotypical] government bureaucrat. What I actually found, more often than not, were people who are incredibly motivated and dedicated to the job they're trying to do, and really are doing it for the right reason ... because they were trying to do something good for people. I think over years, a lot of your drive and gusto gets beaten out of you by bureaucratic red tape, people telling you "no" and not being able to find an easy way around things. Then maybe worst of all, there's typically no incentive in the government for anybody to try anything new. As I said before, I think failure is a necessary part of innovation. You can't be expected to hit a home run every time. Sometimes it's going to be a single; sometimes you're going to foul out to the catcher. But we need to accept that to make some significant changes.

I think a lot of this boils down to really letting the people who are in the trenches doing the day-to-day work do things in their own way. Give them the freedom to try new stuff. They're the ones who know all these things the best. Let them fail and then let them succeed, and celebrate both the failures and the successes until people realize there are better ways of doing things.

It's not a natural act for governments that are under constant scrutiny and complete pressure to never do anything wrong. I think that's another side of it that has to be addressed, but that's part of my role. I want to evangelize the fact that you can't expect things to be perfect every time, especially if you want things to work out for the better and to change. I think the way to do it is to find some bright spots because there are people out there doing this right now, both in the state of Maryland and everywhere else. If we can find those bright spots, really hold them up as shining examples and show people how to replicate that success, then I think we can start a real significant movement toward making this the status quo as opposed to the way they are right now.

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