Can Government Lead Technology Innovation?

Flint Waters, CIO, State of Wyoming
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Flint Waters, CIO, State of Wyoming

Does your state or local government come to mind when you imagine bastions of innovation? Think about it. The last time you were at a technology conference what impression did you draw when you noticed a nametag that said “State of …”? Did you instinctively look around to see if there was someone else that might have something new or innovative to offer? If you heard a comment that someone was “innovating at the speed of government” would you assume it was a punch line?

With the obvious exception of inventive ways to intercept other people’s communications and destroy public confidence, in what areas has the Government been the champion that breaks new ground? The Government needs to embrace technologies in ways that enhance the public trust.

“With the State leasing all the capacity, we are prompting our corporate partners to invest throughout the state to service our contracts”

Perhaps we are just looking at the wrong level of the government. Many of my colleagues, state and local CIO’s, work at the grassroots level to engage technology in ways that enhance quality of life, build public confidence and promote local growth for citizens and the tech sector.

When we were offered a new technology campus for Wyoming government, we chose to decline. Rather than build a beautiful multi-million dollar single point of failure, we instead asked to move to off-premise solutions and instead invested in the backbone infrastructure necessary to accommodate the latest in cloud delivered solutions. As a State with a rapidly growing technology sector, particularly in data center build outs, why would Government want to take our significant purchasing power off the market by trying to build our own. It is imperative we continue to recognize our first calling. We must act to serve locally. We should leave to Microsoft and Google that which they are best at offering the simplest of demonstrations, our efforts to expand broadband capacity within Wyoming have been crafted with a grassroots approach. We chose not to throw fiber into our own easements along highways and State land. Instead we opened up access to our commercial providers and partnered with them as anchor tenants to promote investment in each of our communities. We renegotiated our contracts so we can bid every single school and state office independently, helping our corporate partners recover costs as they invest in our cities and towns. Governor Matt Mead championed a Unified Network, incorporating education and State needs in a shared initiative.

Our legislature funded the efforts, which will result in a 100 GB backbone throughout Wyoming delivering IPv6 corner to corner. With the State leasing all the capacity, we are prompting our corporate partners to invest throughout the state to service our contracts. This means our businesses, communities and homes will benefit from the investment in the technological capacity necessary to serve schools and government. Soon they too can order a level of connectivity, never before seen in our remote reaches.

This approach may fly in the face of many initiatives where local government builds their own fiber to “save public money” as they connect their offices and facilities. In rural America this scenario can have the opposite effect, resulting in a reduced return on investment for broadband providers, causing them to commit their dollars elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, local government broadband projects can work, but often you have to wait until it fails, you lose millions and then Google comes in with a fiber initiative. This approach seems similar to investing in life insurance as your retirement plan. Someone benefits, but you aren’t around to partake.

So, how do you make such a dramatic change? Shifting some government employees to a mindset of disruptive change is no easy task. In order to build a workforce that embraces change, leverages change and in the end, demands change takes a different approach. When we first started moving our teams from a world owned by blackberries, we had to force a leap of borrowed faith.

After several meetings meant to design our new network and cloud service initiatives which went nowhere, I struggled to figure out how to get folks to abandon a risk adverse culture established through years of Government service. In an environment where people rarely rise through their amazing accomplishments, you won’t find individuals willing to raise their hand, much less the stakes.

Our dilemma warranted drastic change. We closed down some of our meeting rooms and put standing tables and screens in our massive hallways. We started standing scrums augmented by distance technology instead of sit-downs and welcomed everyone. Sometimes the best idea for networking came from a server admin or a tech support specialist. We broadcasted our supervisory meetings so our employees could participate from any device. Once a month we gathered everyone together to brief our initiatives, recognize team and individual brilliance, and own our successes.

I then come back to an old lesson learned regarding trust and risk. In every whiteboard in every meeting I started writing a large number one  in the corner. I explained folks to wish, to dream and to sometimes be clairvoyant. I needed them to imagine what we could do if there were no obstructions, real or perceived.  The number one is to demonstrate that our success would be shared and championed under the Governor’s vision.  It took a while, but we finally started building the trust necessary to release the brilliance our own system had repressed for so many years. Skunk works projects grew organically. Ideas started dominating the hallways. Both hands and stakes started to rise.

Through these efforts we strive to lead through innovation while remaining worthy of the trust and confidence of those we serve our citizens.

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