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Timeless Lessons for Government Innovators

lessons 20 years graphic
Adapted from an article published in Government Technology

In 1993, then New York Governor Mario Cuomo announced the creation of the Center for Technology in Government “to pursue new ways of applying technologies directly to the practical problems of information management and service delivery in the public sector.” The idea behind CTG came from state government IT leaders who wanted to try new ideas for using information and technology to improve government. They worked closely with us to invent CTG as a place where they could explore and experiment before making big investments in technical, organizational and institutional innovations. Two years later, we were honored with an Innovations in American Government Award from the Ford Foundation for our unique combination of problem solving, knowledge sharing, and partnerships.

By our 5th anniversary, we had worked with more than 100 government organizations on projects ranging from land use permits in New York’s Adirondack Park to a prototype for New York’s statewide GIS data cooperative. We summed up our observations in an article for The Public Manager on Four Realities of IT Innovation in Government. To innovate successfully with technology you must lead with your mission, embrace learning by doing, understand and grapple with complexity, and put faith in the unsung commitment and creativity of individual professionals. Those realities remain fully present today in our 20th anniversary year.

Today, we are working with governments around the world, often in collaboration with academics, private firms, and NGOs. Our scope and reach are much wider, but our philosophy is unchanged. We work with government to find innovative solutions to pressing public problems. We share globally what we learn from each project. We work with actively engaged partners in and out of the public sector who understand innovation is hard work with both risks and rewards.

Throughout the 20 year history of CTG, we have emphasized how the societal context and institutional character of government interact with information and communication technologies to shape the capabilities and influence the performance of the public sector. We fundamentally believe innovation is a function of creative exploration of the interdependencies among public policy, public management, information resources, and technologies. We’ve seen governments everywhere too often struggle to apply a popular strategy, policy, or technological solution to their local context to no productive end. We’ve seen large central government agencies install multi-million dollar systems that fail for lack of consideration of the culture and capabilities of the intended user community. We’ve seen small municipalities spend $50,000 on systems because they work for their peers only to discover too late that the system doesn’t work for them because of inherent differences in capability, structure, or management. With no money left to make it work, their staff still do time cards by hand or collect data on clipboards. Systems lay dormant and processes remain slow and mystifying for frustrated and underserved citizens and communities.

At the same time, we’ve seen amazing successes where innovations flourish thanks to thoughtful analysis of what is both possible and advisable in a specific time and place. Twenty years of work with some of the bravest and brightest public sector innovators has generated practical lessons, empirical evidence, and analytical tools all designed to gather and exploit deep contextual knowledge that tips the balance in favor of success.

These lessons have stood the tests of time. Take the evolving focus on data as an example. A 1995 CTG project to build an open data community (although we didn’t call it that then) produced a prototype spatial data repository and a statewide data sharing program for the State of New York that still exists today. More importantly it produced early understanding of what it takes to build a data sharing community. A US National Archives project to build a planning tool for “electronic records access” in 2002 identified the fundamentals for planning today’s open data initiatives. A 2005 project, which identified the unexploited value of the data in local land records, now contributes to new thinking about the emerging field of policy informatics. Our work on capability assessment for information sharing, initially drawn from work with the justice community, contributed to recent work on the dynamics of opening government data, to an open data roadmap for the government of Nigeria, and to new insights for NASA about its open data efforts.

In the spirit of our knowledge sharing philosophy and in celebration of our 20th anniversary, we offer these few timeless lessons to innovators everywhere who want information and technology to work better for government and service society.

To innovate successfully with technology you must lead with your mission, embrace learning by doing, understand and grapple with complexity, and put faith in the unsung commitment and creativity of individual professionals.

In project after project, we’ve seen how untested – and even unspoken – assumptions at the outset almost guarantee unnecessary delay, expense, and dysfunction down the line. An example from a project to improve financial services to local governments highlights the need for what we call “before the beginning” analysis. The project’s basic idea was to standardize and share information about municipal finances between six regional offices and the state central office so problems could be spotted early, trends would be more evident, and the right kinds of technical assistance could be offered at the right time. Simple on the surface. However, half the project team began the project thinking this data resource would assist state officials who work with local governments and the other half thought it would be set up for local officials to use themselves. Different users, different goals, different expectations.

From the earliest projects we learned that critical decisions and understandings like this one have to made explicit “before the beginning,” that is before a project team is fully established, before a timeline is set up, before the budget is allocated, and before any technology decisions are made. This “phase zero” is absolutely necessary. Don’t skip it because you can’t do a full-blown evaluation. Do what you can. Start by identifying and listening to stakeholders, gather some basic descriptive and quantitative information about the situation, and investigate at least a few existing approaches taken by others. Think of this as a version of the 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of your problems down the road can be traced to skipping the 20 percent of effort you should have spent before the beginning.

Eighty percent of your problems down the road can be traced to skipping the 20 percent of effort you should have spent before the beginning.

Innovative capability goes far beyond its technical aspects; it also encompasses policy and organizational capability – and the ways they influence each other. Technical advances make many innovations possible, but technical expertise is not enough. You also need the capability to promote organizational and institutional adaptation and change. Research and experience tell us that most IT project teams fail to critically assess the range of capabilities needed to succeed. Our view of capability helps innovators take into account the importance of context and four key characteristics of full capability.

First, capability is multidimensional—it comprises a variety of essential attributes – leadership, readiness, governance, policies, data assets, technical knowledge, and more. All these contribute to overall capability. Second, capability is complementary—high or low overall levels of capability can result from different combinations of factors, high levels in some dimensions can often compensate for lower levels in others. Third, capability is dynamic—it can increase or diminish due to changing conditions within an initiative or in its external environment. And finally, capability is specific to its setting—some elements of capability apply to all settings, but capability for any particular project must be assessed relative to its own specific objectives and environment.

Think of these four characteristics as a checklist for approaching any innovation or problem solving effort: Have you identified and considered all the relevant dimensions of capability? Have you mapped all the complementarities? Do you have a plan for responding to changing needs? And finally, are you confident that you understand the specific setting well enough to make these judgments? If the answer is yes in all cases, our experience says your project is much more likely to succeed than to contribute to the too-high failure rate of IT innovation.

Over the past 20 years essential public services and programs, from building infrastructure to assuring public safety to providing human services, have become the responsibility of complex inter-organizational networks of public, private, and non-profit entities. Scholars and practitioners alike recognize that complex societal needs and network-based strategies to meet them, demand individual and collective ability to work across boundaries between departments, agencies, professions, sectors, governments, even nations. As a consequence, the ability to work effectively across boundaries has become a core competency for government professionals worldwide.

In our experience, the need to share information lies at the heart of these networks, and it often involves sharing information for a purpose that was not its originally intended use. The challenges in these initiatives increase proportionally with the number of boundaries crossed, the number and types of information sources to be shared, and the number of technical and organizational processes to be changed or integrated.

The challenges can differ widely in their scope and detail. For example, an effort to increase case closure rates by linking multiple databases and case management processes in a district attorney’s office or a county department of health are less problematic than an enterprise-level initiative to create a statewide crime communications network or a regional network to respond to a public health crisis such as West Niles Virus. The first type involves units of a single organization operating under one executive leader. The second kind involves many separate organizations at several levels of government pursuing related but somewhat different objectives in diverse but overlapping programs with different policies, practices, and data resources. Neither type is easy, but the second has special demands for governance, communication, problem-solving, and resource sharing.

Practical Resources for Government Managers

Government Information Sharing: A Planning Toolkit
This toolkit is designed for government professionals tasked with planning and implementing initiatives that rely on effective information-sharing.

Making Smart IT Choices: Understanding Value and Risk in Government IT Investments
This handbook is designed to help any government manager evaluate IT innovations before deciding (with greater confidence) to make a significant investment.

Opening Gateways: A Practical Guide for Designing Information Access Programs
This guide provides several practical tools to help governments create information access programs that are effective, manageable, and affordable. The assessment, diagnostic, program design, and cost estimation tools presented address issues that remain and will continue to become more relevant to any access program regardless of technology advances or how it is labeled or marketed.

Sharing Justice Information: A Capability Assessment Toolkit
This toolkit is designed for justice professionals to use when considering or planning for a justice information-sharing initiative.

Building State Government Digital Preservation Partnerships: A Capability Assessment and Planning Toolkit
This toolkit is designed for library, archives, records management, and information technology professionals to assess where capability for digital preservation exists and where it must be developed in order to achieve the goal of preserving significant at-risk government information.

Creating and sharing knowledge is one of the founding principles of CTG. One way we live up to this principle is by translating the lessons we learn from working directly on problem solving projects with governments into guidance documents and analytical tools and techniques that can be used by others with similar needs. One set of tools focuses particularly on helping governments build capability for innovation (see sidebox).

Successful IT innovations and the transformation they seek to support, depend at least as much on the policy environment and how well the organizations and individuals perform as on the chips, networks, and software. They involve understanding and working with the interdependencies among policy, management, technology, and data within a specific context. And they start with a candid assessment of where they are before deciding how to get where they need to go.

We learned these lessons by working with some of the most innovative, dedicated, and persistent public managers you will ever meet. We look forward to working with many more.

Theresa Pardo, Director
Sharon Dawes, Senior Fellow