• Q&A
  • August 23, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

The ex-White House digital champion bringing innovation to New Jersey

Q&A: Beth Noveck on the challenge of transforming regional government

What’s the best route to reforming government? Is it better to direct policies from within national governments, work on service delivery at the local or state level, or research and develop new ways of working from outside the machine?

Beth Simone Noveck is one of those best placed to answer, as, starting later this year, she’ll have done all three. Earlier this month, she was appointed as the state of New Jersey’s first chief innovation officer. Noveck is a longtime advocate of open government reform: as director of New York University’s Governance Lab and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance, she has worked on policies to make government more transparent and responsive to citizens’ needs.

She was named as one of the top twenty most influential people in digital government by Apolitical, and, in August, was named as one of ten expert advisers for the German government’s digital transformation strategy.

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Apolitical spoke to her to ask how open reforms and digital transformation can be applied to government at the state level.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

New Jersey received a C+ in the most recent Digital States Survey, the fifth lowest rating in the US. How big is the task you’ve taken on?

It’s not unique to New Jersey to say that the scale of the task is enormous. The need to modernise government and deliver services in an efficient, digital and intuitive way is something that so many governments are grappling with, just as a first step.

The second step is the ability then to shift towards government that is really focused on problem solving — on tapping innovative capacity both within the public sector and then across the population, and really learning to consult and engage with people in solving problems in innovative ways. We know these are things that everybody struggles with.

New Jersey, and again not uniquely, needs to increase the efficiency and intelligence of its infrastructure. It has to modernise its electric grid; it has to scale up the quality and reach of its digital services.

You have a lot of already existing industry and entrepreneurship in the state — it’s had a history of being a centre of innovation and invention. Thomas Edison hails from New Jersey, and his workshop in Menlo Park is the birthplace of American invention; it’s the home of Bell Labs; it’s the home of the steam locomotive and the first water powered cotton mill. Today you have a lot of really innovative industries of a whole different and diverse variety. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity.

What are your plans, and how will you approach the role?

I think, in brief, the idea will be to work, together with my colleagues, on modernisation of key citizen services, to ensure that there is actually better quality, more efficient and more intuitive service delivery.

Second will be modernisation of the public service; helping to train people’s innovation skills, and to make sure we’re unleashing the innovative capacity within the public sector.

The third thing is looking at how we use technologies to unleash innovative capacity across the population and then more broadly to solve problems within the state.

“I don’t think you can sacrifice transparency and engagement for efficiency and, frankly, I don’t think you need to”

My office will be a small office, and no matter how big it grows to, we can never do everything by ourselves. What we can do the best job of, I think, is to make sure that the data’s available and that we’re tapping into the collective intelligence that’s available to really do things at a greater scale at a real impact. My focus is on how we work differently in order to be more effective. Collaboration is really going to be key to that — both internal and external.

You’ve previously held a position in the federal government, and advised national government in the UK too. How do you imagine this state job will differ?

It was very intentional, to choose to do something at the state level. Many people go from the state to the national level, through a promotion of some kind. I view this as a promotion in the sense that, yes, it’s smaller population wise, but the opportunity for impact may be even greater. The sense of opportunity I have feels even greater.

In the US, education is something that’s administered at a local level. Even something like job growth and labour markets, there’s a lot that the national government can do, but when it really comes to job creation, and economic development, that’s really happening at the state level, in terms of the really direct instruments are being applied. For me it’ll be a great learning opportunity to really understand what the tools in the toolbox are, and how we can innovate and how we apply them.

How do you make sure reform takes people with it, and isn’t excessively top-down?

It’s really about having an open government and a listening government, one in which we’re consulting with people, we’re bringing in best practice around human-centric design, to actually improve how government services get delivered with the insights and expertise of the people who receive those services.

My background is in open government and transparency and citizen engagement, and that’s what I mean about working differently. It’s really looking at how we solve problems in new and different ways — openly rather than closed, using data rather than without, citizen engagement, human-centric design — to try to get to solutions more effectively and efficiently, and more legitimately.

Working with technology often involves “moving fast and breaking things”. How do you protect people at the same time, and make sure they know what’s going on?

I don’t think you can sacrifice transparency and engagement for efficiency and, frankly, I don’t think you need to. Thanks to technology we have the ability to efficiently engage people in the process of redesigning services — there’s no excuse for not being transparent in bringing people along and to explain how things are getting done.

That’s the obligation — it’s not just the opportunity. It’s rooted in the whole idea that if you want to develop an effective solution to a real problem you have to understand and define the problem. That requires actually engaging with people. There is no substitute for that and there’s no greater efficiency to be had in avoiding that, because you end up with solutions that don’t work. — Anoush Darabi, additional reporting by Alia Shahzad

This piece previously described New Jersey as the home of Dell Labs. This has been amended to Bell Labs.

(Picture credit: Flickr/USV)

 

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