Doing Innovation as ‘Just One Guy’

By Scott Kirsner |  September 4, 2013

Michael Powell became the State of Maryland’s  Chief Innovation Officer last August, reporting directly to Governor Martin O’Malley. Powell is the second person to hold the title — still a rare one in state government. His career includes stints at IBM and the City of Baltimore. He talked with InnoLead about the frustrations of doing innovation within state government, and some of his early successes.

How is the Chief Innovation Officer’s role defined in Maryland?

The clearest way to put it is the governor has sixteen big picture goals in four areas: opportunity (jobs and the economy), public safety, health, and the environment. That isn’t revolutionary. Pretty much every governor has similar goals. But the core expectation is that I help find new solutions that will move the ball forward in those areas. I also have direct responsibility for the state’s IT department, and IT project spending by state agencies.

How big is your staff? 

It’s just kind of me. I’m on the governor’s senior staff, and I have a lot of resources at my disposal. But in the budget, I’m just one guy. I call a lot of people around here partners, and subject matter experts, but do I have a team of innovators that I get to send out there? No, not directly. But since the CIO reports up through me, I have the resources of the state’s IT organization.

Are there other resources you’d like to have?

I’d love to have an analytics group, similar to what [analytics director] Mike Flowers has in New York City. The thing we do really well is performance management, looking at agency performance, and how they can be more efficient. But I’d love to have something similar looking not at agencies, but solving the real-world problems that state government has decided to address.

What have been some of your successes thus far?

I’ll give you a little one and a big one. Plenty of places have license plate reading cameras, on police cars or on fixed locations like traffic lights. And they are really good at flagging vehicles with expired registrations, or stolen vehicles. But I had this realization that if I was a wanted criminal with a warrant out for my arrest, we hadn’t designed the system to pop up a flag. And we have data on violent criminals with open warrants. We also have motor vehicle data on who owns what car. So if there’s an open warrant for Mike Powell, we run that against the motor vehicle data, and use the license plate reading cameras to spot you if we can spot you. That has let the state and local police departments make some good arrests. If you drive by a police car, it’ll pop up a flag: here’s someone wanted for an armed robbery. And making arrests more quickly, with less police department time, has a direct impact on the bottom line, not to mention public safety.

That was innovative in the sense that we hadn’t done it before. And what was nice was that we didn’t need to procure a giant system. It was all done internally, with our software developers and our data. It had big impact, but was a little project in terms of effort.

The bigger one — the more challenging one — is one we don’t have a bow on yet. It relates to our health information exchange. We’re the first state to integrate all of our hospitals into one system. The net of that is that every hospitalization in the state is shared across all of those 47 hospitals. That went live in January 2012. We’re starting to realize that the infrastructure can do more than it was designed to do. We can do analysis from a public health perspective, looking “frequent fliers” who are hospitalized multiple times. What can we understand about that cohort to develop better public health strategies? We think we can help our citizens get better health services, and if they’re Medicaid patients, it may help us reduce costs as well. Nobody wins if somebody is being hospitalized six times a year for asthma-related stuff. That’s a treatable condition. The governor has this interest, and this frustration, around people who have treatable health conditions that we haven’t been able to help.

What’s your biggest frustration as Chief Innovation Officer there?

My biggest frustration is time. This administration has a lifespan that is ending, and I’ve got a boss who is relentless about what else he wants to accomplish before his administration is over. [Governor O’Malley was elected to a second term in 2010, and because of the state’s term limits can’t run again in 2014.] So there’s no victory tour that’s happening. We’ll just keep pushing until the last day. There’s an infinite amount of stuff you can decide to tackle, and it’s sometimes hard to focus on the stuff that’s most critical.

Another thing I’d like to invest a little more in is, how do we create a more innovative culture in state government, a culture that is sustained well after we’re gone?

We’re also trying to get a hackathon going — though I don’t love the term — around Chesapeake Bay restoration. We’ve got an open data portal that we’re continuing to enhance. I’d like to really ramp up the amount of environmental data there, and throw up a challenge with some prize money around ways to make the bay healthier. We’d toss that out to the non-government community. I’m hoping to do that this year.

How do you or the governor measure the impact you are having?

If feel like if we can continue to make progress on those sixteen goals,  that’s how I measure our success. And I also feel that I need to be bringing the governor ideas that I’ve thought through with a good team of people. Part of my job is, am I keeping him informed of new opportunities we should pursue, or opportunities for the state to do things better?

What do you see as pitfalls to avoid — things that might be relevant to other innovation executives?

I don’t want to be the ideas guy. I don’t want to be the guy who comes up with a clever idea and drops it on the Department of Transportation and tells them, “You should go do this,” and moves on. I’ve had a decent track record in my career of being somebody who helps implement stuff. You often have to decide that you need to focus on stuff that will have the biggest impact, and really work to make it successful and sustainable. As opposed to just presenting the good idea.