In this episode of Innovation Answered, we wanted to know, “What does innovation look like in government? ” To get best practices, Innovation Leader’s Kaitlin Milliken sat down with Tanya Hannah, the former Chief Information Officer of King’s County Washington. Steve Rader, Deputy Manager of NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, also shares how the organization runs idea challenges to solve problems.
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This episode is sponsored by Planbox, the number one ranked innovation management solution provider by Forrester. Planbox is the most flexible and comprehensive AI-powered, agile innovation management platform and service. Their team helps empower enterprise-wide continuous improvement, corporate venturing, data scouting, digital transformation, and innovation systems. Planbox can help you innovate consistently and experiment cost-effectively while managing your entire innovation pipeline and portfolio. For more information visit, planbox.com.
Steve Rader: People are most interested in having their ideas come into reality.
Tanya Hannah: Customers in the private sector expect the same level of service from government entities.
Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered. In each episode, we ask a central question about the things that make change hard at large organizations. Then we get answers from experts about how innovators can overcome these challenges and make an impact. I’m Kaitlin Milliken, from Innovation Leader.
While most of our episodes focus on innovation at big companies, today we’re turning our attention to the public sector. So we wanted to know: What does innovation look like in government?
Innovators in the public and private sectors face many of the same challenges: There’s resistance to change, antiquated technology infrastructure, and internal politics that can bog down progress. However, teams in the government oftentimes have tighter budgets that come directly from tax payer dollars. There can be less room for experiments and risk-taking. And the demand to generate returns comes both from supervisors and constituents.
However, that pressure cooker can sometimes spark creativity. One case study is NASA.
Neil Armstrong: That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.
Kaitlin Milliken: In 2009, the team at the agency’s Johnson Space Center were notified of impending budget cuts. In order to continue their progress, NASA researcher Dr. Jeffery Davis began to tap crowds — both inside and outside the organization — for challenges.
Two years later, the space center officially launched its Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation.
Steve Rader: What we found is people within an organization are very much in favor of being more innovative, to be more open, to actually be participative. But what they’ve found, in large organizations particularly, people tell them pretty much immediately why their idea won’t work. And when they looked around the government, NASA’s pilots stood out as one of the few places that crowdsourcing and challenges were being used. And so they actually asked NASA if we would stand up a Center of Excellence to not just help NASA do this, but actually help all the federal agencies that were interested to actually have this prizes and challenges capability.
Kaitlin Milliken: That was Steve Rader, Deputy Manager of the Center. The Center of Excellence formally began operations in 2011. According to Steve, the initiative has run 350 challenges and boasts a 90 percent success rate. The secret, he says, is posing narrow problem statements to the crowd.
Steve Rader: Never post a challenge or a statement out there with a site that says, “Give us all your best ideas,” because you’re not equipped to actually go implement any of them. And so those people will just be really frustrated. You won’t have a way to actually evaluate them and it will just be a big dud. We call that the suggestion box black hole. If you actually put a challenge out that is very narrow; you set expectations for what’s going to happen; the owner of that challenge is somebody who can actually implement whatever comes out of it, in most cases people are most interested in having their ideas come into reality.
Kaitlin Milliken: Another important element: identifying the right group of problem solvers. When working on galactic cosmic ray protection that could defend Earth from radiation, the team engaged nuclear physicists. They crowdsourced freelance artists to design sew-on patches for different missions. NASA also held a storyboard challenge to help explain what happens to the human body in space. For that, videographers were called to bring the rough drawings to life.
Steve Rader: What we found is that when we put challenges out, even if they’re just for a graphic or a training manual or something that’s not super technical, what we find is that the public that engages on those challenges is really really excited about getting to be apart of the NASA mission in some small part.
Kaitlin Milliken: In April of 2020, NASA tapped the crowd again to look for innovative ideas to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19. Leaders asked employees to share solutions on the organization’s internal challenge platform NASA @ Work. According to a press release, ideas were gathered related to three categories: personal protective equipment, ventilation devices, and monitoring the spread of coronavirus.
The Center of Excellence is a great case study of innovation in the federal government, but what about success stories closer to home? To find out, we sat down with Tanya Hannah, the former Chief Information Officer of King’s County Washington. We’ll be back with Tanya after this break.
Kaitlin Milliken: Here at Innovation Leader, we know that teams are looking for ways to prove their worth and celebrate team members who have been critical along the innovation journey. So we created the Impact Awards. Our annual Impact Awards honor companies and individuals that have achieved extraordinary outcomes related to their innovation programs. Here to tell us more about the awards is Caitlin Harper, Innovation Leader’s events producer. So, Caitlin, what are the different awards that people can apply for?
Caitlin Harper: The Impact Awards recognize initiatives established in the past three years that show statistical improvements to the company culture, productivity, and revenue. The second is the Best New Initiative Award — which recognizes initiatives with great promise but have been established in the past year. The MVP award recognizes an individual in an innovation team who has established themselves as a leader in the innovation field.
Kaitlin Milliken: So I know what projects and people I want to nominate. What do I do next?
Caitlin Harper: You can apply on the awards page, innovationleader.com/awards. Just fill out the Google Form. Super simple. Super easy.
Kaitlin Milliken: Thanks, Caitlin. All submissions are due by June 26. Now, back to the show.
Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back with Tanya Hannah. Tanya is the former Director and Chief Information Officer of King’s County Washington. For those of you outside the pacific northwest, King’s county includes parts of Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue. The area houses over two million residents. Ten Fortune 500 companies have headquarters located in King’s County — including Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks.
King’s County was in the spotlight in early 2020 as one of the first hot zones for COVID-19 in the US. However, we recorded this conversation in October of 2019 with Tanya, long before coronavirus was dominating the headlines. She was one of the speakers at our annual Impact conference. We thought the advice she gave during our chat was worth sharing.
Now on with the interview.
So you’re the Chief Information Officer for the region. Can you tell me about that role and what it entails.
Tanya Hannah: So King County is home to 2.2 million residents and their 64 lines of business, whether we’re talking about public health clinics, bus service, solid waste, hazardous waste. Parks, you name it. My team is responsible for including 911 services, emergency radio.
Kaitlin Milliken: So can you tell me about how you came into that role and where your experience and background is?
Tanya Hannah: So my entire career has been in public sector. I’m originally from the east coast and came out to the west coast to work for Amazon. I was hired by the previous CIO, who’s now at LA County as his deputy and then I moved into the role.
Kaitlin Milliken: So can you tell me A little bit about how innovation connects back to the Office of the Chief Information Officer?
Tanya Hannah: So at King County, our customers — whether their employees or the individuals who live in the area, or the businesses we serve — are expecting government to be more like private sector companies, particularly Amazon. And so they want us to be responsive — utilize new technology to serve them. And so we’ve had to think about, it’s not only about online payment for property taxes. We’ve had to consider what do mobile wallets look like, and that’s something that we’re bringing into the county. It also comes out through voice. No one likes being on a IVR and clicking and pressing buttons and in government, those menus can be very deep and long for you to find information.
They just want to call, state what their problem is, and get the information that they want. So we’ve had to think about how to use natural language processing to serve customers. For homelessness, it’s about predicting those who need services and trying to connect them with the services that they need.
Kaitlin Milliken: So that’s a wide variety of areas, so many different topics. How do you decide what to actually focus on? When you have such a broad portfolio to choose from?
Tanya Hannah: In government, everything is important. So for all aspects of county business, we try to think about where do we add value? What are the services that members of the community need or those that they want? And how can we deliver them in a much better way utilizing technology to help?
Kaitlin Milliken: So before we sat down, I did a little bit of research and some of my homework, and I saw on your website that something that IT really works on in King County is digital equity and social justice. Can you explain what digital equity, and information and social justice, how they’re all connected?
Tanya Hannah: In King County, we’re a very diverse and prosperous region. At least 50 percent of the community has a bachelor’s degree. But there are barriers for those at the lower socioeconomic end, whereby they’re missing out on the digital economy because while broadband may be available, it’s not affordable for them. Or they don’t have the education to understand how to use technology in such a way and how important it is, whether it’s coding or just being internet savvy and literate, is important, particularly to children. So some of the things that we do on a personal level is my team works out in the community with schools, assisting in coding, we loan tech talent out to nonprofits to help them become digitally, literate and savvy. Other things that we do which we can assist with is broadband services.
Parts of King County is not served, where they don’t get, you know, 25 megabit, download three megabits, upload speeds. And the county needs all of our communities connected. So we try to work with public private partnerships to help broaden internet service.
Kaitlin Milliken: So a lot of our listeners, they have that private sector background, what are some of the challenges or aspects of innovating for a government entity that those folks may not encounter or be aware of?
Tanya Hannah: So funding can sometimes be a challenge for governments because you’re so busy trying to deliver just basic services that you really don’t carve out any money to be able to innovate.
Another challenge can be skills, particularly in regions where there are other companies that you could potentially work for — that competition there. And so how do you upscale your current employees to be able to innovate and think about solving problems differently than they have before?
And then finally, the other challenge is, government sometimes has a very risk averse culture. And so you really don’t want to be bleeding-edge or leading-edge. But because so much change and disruption is occurring, you tend to get left behind if you can’t keep up.
I think there are opportunities for private sector to lend their tech talent to help solve some of the challenges within their communities, whether it’s, you know, through companies partnering with their state and local governments to solve problems. Or it could be private sector companies, loaning some of their employees to work with a government jurisdiction to help, you know, bring them along.
Kaitlin Milliken: Going off of that, innovators in the private sector, what can they do to create a really meaningful relationship with your team?
Tanya Hannah: Out in Seattle area, we have some great partners that work with us to help solve local challenges. I would tell the audience to really think about how their companies could get involved with state and local governments.
Government collects a lot of data, but we may not necessarily have the skill sets to think about personalization or predictive analytics, for example. So how could you help? What about best practices and improving the customer experience? While I have a design thinking team at King County, there are a lot of jurisdictions that can’t afford that.. So how could you help them improve? Serving the greater community?
Kaitlin Milliken: So a lot of the work that you’re doing, it affects constituents. It’s about meeting their needs. How are you interacting with them and bringing them into the innovation process?
Tanya Hannah: Currently King County is modernizing our property tax system. And this is a system from the 1970s. And we’re using agile development to do it. It’s a two year project. So it will end sometime in 2020. A fully built system. And the first module that’s out the gate is senior exemptions. And so we did design thinking and all to engage older adults in applying for an exemption to reduce their property tax because the Seattle region is… Affordability is a very big issue.
And so what we’re doing now for our user testing, is we’re actually going out to senior centers, and actually working with seniors watching them use the software and see how it’s working for them and what challenges. While we believe we’ve designed a great looking product that’s very simple, we really won’t know how it will perform until we test it with actual older adults. AARP is also assisting us with finding some seniors to test with. And I think that’s how you get the community involved in your process.
One of the challenges that we are worried about is accessibility. We believe we’ve got great fonts, you know, the screen is very crisp, but we won’t know until we see, and we’re working with some older, older adults who have sight impairment. It’ll be interesting to see how they react to the screen. So we’re trying to do things like that where we actually get community input on some of the tech that we’re building or working with local companies.
Kaitlin Milliken: I want to transition to talk a little bit about skills and advice. For someone in your role. What would you say are the most important skills to have that you find yourself applying frequently?
Tanya Hannah: Technology skills, yes, we need individuals who know the latest programming or if you’re a data scientist, like you have the educational credentials and all. But what we don’t really talk about in tech that much is the soft skills. How do you communicate verbal, written skills.
Also, thinking about diversity and diversity of teams and being able to collaborate with persons of color or those of a different gender, particularly in tech where it can be male dominated? How do you value the voice, particularly of female.
Also thinking, you know, what is your problem solving and critical thinking skills? Kind of those skills that you should have picked up in kindergarten, but may not have. And then finally, I think anyone in tech, or matter of fact any employee in any industry, I think they now need to be lifelong learners. Technology is changing so quickly, and you need to be able to change with it. So…
Kaitlin Milliken: And for other CIOs, who work in government in different counties. Do you have any lessons learned that you’d like to share with those folks?
Tanya Hannah: Private sector really expects the same level of service from government entities and so things that we can think about and how we serve the needs of our customers, delivering them the information that they want — when, where, and how — understanding what their preferences are. That’s going to be key. But people expect a responsive, responsive government.
Kaitlin Milliken: So perseverance is an essential quality for innovators — in both the public and private sectors — who want to create positive change in their organizations.
You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Tanya and Steve for chatting with us. To join the Innovation Leader community, sign up for a membership on our website. You can also listen to all episodes of our show at innovationleader.com/podcast. If you love our content, rate and review us on your streaming platform of choice. That helps other innovators find our show. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
Special thanks to Planbox for sponsoring this episode. We can all agree, as innovators, that investing in moonshots and quick wins are an essential strategy. That’s why many innovation labs have been created over the past decades — we’re not only talking about physical labs, but online innovation labs as well. In fact, online innovation labs are being used by most Fortune 500 organizations now more than ever, because virtual work is widely accepted and embraced. Online innovation labs are highly engaging and are a valuable collaboration tool for an organization’s entire innovation ecosystem.
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