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Reshaping public service IT for the new digital era

Kenny MacIver – September 2015

In the face of digitally driven exponential change, public sector CIOs need to act like venture capitalists, says Dr David Bray, CIO at the US’s Federal Communications Commission, empowering problem-solving ‘change agents.’

It may only be in its early stages, but the digital revolution is driving change at a blistering pace. As Dr David Bray, CIO at the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) observes, this new industrial era is not only changing the way we work and play but also how countries and societies evolve, prosper and co-exist.

The rate of change creates a fundamental challenge for the public sector, which — at least in representative democracies — is more geared for stability and predictability than any overnight shifts. “There are certain things you don’t want to change on a whim, such as the tax code or how you do defense,” says Bray in our exclusive video interview.

Whereas the motto in Silicon Valley and other innovation hubs around the world might be fail fast and fail often, such a freewheeling model is not going to work for public service, where certain endeavors absolutely must succeed and cannot waste taxpayer funds, he argues. However, when applied selectively and judiciously, it can inspire the kind of change that is needed.

“It raises some interesting questions about how public service agencies can adapt to the exponential changes in the world, given that they don’t have venture capital funds and they’re actually not expected to take too many risks because failure in something like the tax system is not an option.”

“My role as a public sector CIO is to be both a digital diplomat and human flak jacket so we can take informed risks.”

With public service agencies not able to stand apart from the changing times, Bray has created a model he believes helps them “think beyond just linear adjustments” to their organizations and services.

To illustrate his thinking he likes to point out that the words expertise and experiments have the same etymological root, which is exper, meaning ‘out of danger.’ In his view, the only way public sector technologists will gain the expertise needed to respond to and take advantage of digital disruption is to do “dangerous experiments” as positive ‘change agents’ akin to what entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley also do. As a result, the function of their CIO becomes to empower and encourage these change agents as they explore non-traditional problem-solving approaches.

“My role as a public sector CIO is to be both a digital diplomat and a human flak jacket so that we can take informed risks. This includes being an internal venture capitalist where I can encourage bottoms-up change by people with great ideas within my organization.”

The best leaders, he argues, recognize they don’t have all the answers and actually reward people who point out new opportunities, as well as blind spots. So Bray sees his remit as cultivating positive change agents in public service who have permission to take risks “to do those dangerous experiments so that the public sector can gain the expertise [needed] to adjust to exponential times

“As venture capitalists, CIOs should be constantly on the look out for good ideas and to reward problem-solvers,” but not without reservation. He typically asks those coming to him with a new proposal to outline three reasons why their idea might fail and how they would mitigate against those. “If they satisfy that criteria, then I’m willing to take a risk and be that venture capitalist on the inside of public service and invest in them.”
Transformation agents

To inject such entrepreneurial spirit, Bray has not only sought out change agents within his own ranks, he has also pulled in talent from Silicon Valley and from academia, persuading them that the transformational mission within public services is worth more than the big salaries and share options they could source elsewhere.

And to ensure such change agents don’t find their ideas crushed by existing structures, he seeks to provide creative problem-solving spaces where those involved feel empowered and encouraged. “I want to give people autonomy so they have a compelling mission to do what really matters, to make meaningful change and see the results,” he says.

First published
September 2015
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About: Dr David Bray
A leading figure in US crisis response and intelligence R&D, Bray is the CIO of the Federal Communications Commission and former IT chief of the US Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program. He has also served in Afghanistan as a senior strategic adviser on humanitarian and defense issues.

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