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CIO: Chief Information or Innovation Officer?

My recent trip to Canberra had many firsts - first time in Australia, first interview with a Minister (more on this coming up soon) and first ‘selfie’ (it’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’ for ‘self-portrait’, so my Editor made me take one).

I was the lucky journalist from our Singapore office to attend the company’s 4th annual FutureGov Summit Australia in Canberra at the beginning of the month. A new Australian government, with a strong focus on digital engagement, and the usual restructuring of agencies and ICT budgets that go hand in hand with government transition, meant that I was in the right place at the right time.

This FutureGov Summit brought together more than 300 government ICT leaders and technology experts to engage in intensive discussions around the latest ICT developments impacting government service delivery in Australia.

Starting with Minister of Communications Malcolm Turnbull’s welcome address, down to my last conversation with Peter Alexander, Chief Information Officer of the Australian Treasury two days later, there was a consistent emphasis on the need for innovation in the public sector to deliver better services.

Minister Turnbull called for a change in attitude towards innovation in digital government. The critical objective is not just saving costs, but making it easier for the community to interact with government through a more engaged and responsive digital platform, he highlighted.

Competition drives innovation in the private sector - but where does the drive for innovation come from in government? How should government ICT officials be thinking about innovation?

Glenn Archer, Government CIO for Australia said that ICT is more than just about efficiency - it’s about transforming the way government functions. Happily for Archer this was echoed by every other CIO from Australia and New Zealand that I spoke to.

CIOs need to go beyond running IT operations and get involved in how technology can innovate and improve business processes, said the Treasury’s Alexander.

Part of this is investing in the right ICT portfolio for the agency and its needs - one of the key steps is knowing when to kill a project, as pointed out by Charles Palmer, Director of Information Integrity at ACT Government.

Graham Clewes, Chief Executive Officer at Medway Youth Trust, in the United Kingdom, said that Australian public sector officials have often viewed efficiency and innovation interchangeably - something that does not always hold true.

I caught up with Les Pall, Master Strategist for Cloud and Big Data, Enterprise Group, HP South Pacific, and Paul Muller, Vice President of Global Strategic Marketing, HP Software, during one of the networking breaks at the Summit. “Everybody we have spoken to is very aware of the possibilities that technology brings to the table. They know what citizens expect,” Muller said. From his conversations as an IDT leader, Pall shared that technology seemed to be the “last inhibitor” to digital transformation - many are inhibited by structure, culture or legal framework in the agencies.

Given the speed at which the IT sector is innovating, change in attitude towards innovation is inevitable in the public sector. The question remains as to how this change will come about. Will it be driven by political leadership, legal framework, management and restructuring of agencies, or public private partnerships? Probably a combination of these.

My thoughts were echoed by Clewes when he said at the close of the two days of conversations, he sensed a high level of nervousness but also a high degree of optimism in the room as everyone grappled with the implications of a digital government.

As to whether the ‘I’ in CIO is innovation or information, I think that no single person can be in charge of driving innovation in an organisation - innovation needs to be broadly supported to avoid the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (the temptation to cut down anything that rises above the rest).

It is, however, a useful reminder that ICT is one of the critical enablers of innovation within an organisation. CIOs and their teams play a crucial role in assisting transformation by ensuring that legacy systems, as well as legacy thinking, doesn’t stand in the way of change.


On 14 December 2013 Ed Bernacki wrote:

I think CIOs should keep their focus on ‘information’ and make their work innovative. We are far too liberal in the in the use of term ‘innovation’. Twenty years ago much of the public sector focus was on continuous improvement, total quality and business excellence.
Now we label everything as innovation.
As you are from Singapore, you may know the PMO made innovation a key focus for PS21. You talked about changing ‘legacy thinking’. The PMO worked on this theme in 2001. I wrote an innovation guide to help the PMO launch a national innovation skills training framework. 20,000 public servant managers received a copy of, ‘Changing the Way We Think.’ The objective was to give people a new way to think about innovation and the skills for being more innovative.
The public sector work in like Australia could have learned from Singapore. There is too much focus on innovation processes and not enough focus on developing the skills and capabilities to innovate. Having writing the book, I can assure you that the focus was on building the innovation capacity of the public service.
This is about improving our skills for problem solving in terms of skills for; generating ideas, how we develop them, judge them, communicate them and then turn them into action. In Singapore, you could take multi-day training programs each of these skill areas. The sixth overall skill was learning how to be innovative in a team setting.

There is enough evidence from around the world that technology alone does not create innovation. Most countries have stories of investing millions in technology that failed. (Ontario tried to computerize health records and invested close to a billion dollars. It completely failed).
I think investing in technology and expecting that this makes you innovative is much like investing in running shoes and expecting that this makes you physically fit.
The technology does not make you innovative any more than running shoes makes you fit.
It is what people do with the technology that makes us innovative.

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