“Never listen to advice. But do get lots of information.”

For this Q&A, we reached out to New Jersey’s innovation team about getting started. We spoke with Dr. Beth Simone Noveck (Chief Innovation Officer, State of New Jersey), and Giuseppe Morgana (Digital Director & Innovation Lab Director, Office of Innovation, State of New Jersey).

Q: How did the Governor become interested in having an innovation team? What was the spark?

Beth: Governor Murphy, from the get-go, was very committed to building on the reputation of New Jersey as a real center for invention and innovation––not just historically (with Edison’s Workshop). We have the number-one public school system in the country. We have more scientists and engineers per square foot than anywhere else in the world. It’s part of recognizing that we need to make sure that the state keeps pace, to ensure that we’re developing and delivering more modern citizen services using data and technology, using evidence-based policymaking, and ensuring that we are fostering the technology and innovation economy. 

I was an informal advisor to him, and we started to talk about the importance of using technology. The State already had an expert chief technology officer, who is responsible for the nuts and bolts of government technology infrastructure…. What would it mean to also create an additional innovation capacity, to deliver more agile, modern data-driven citizen services? 

Q: When you talked to the Governor about what it would mean to create an additional innovation capacity as opposed to the CTO, what did you say? How did you describe that? 

Beth: The CTO, Chris Rein, is very busy running, maintaining, and improving enterprise systems and the backend of government operations, worrying about technology procurement and technology contracting—as well as the whole cybersecurity agenda of keeping them secure and safe.

We talked about the kinds of things that we could do in terms of building new sorts of tools in an agile and human-centered way, where we engage with citizens working from the bottom up rather than from the top down; developing things and releasing them in alpha; and improving them in conversation with people we work with, with the citizens that we serve. We also talked about the importance of technology policy and really trying to be at the forefront of leading on open government issues. And we talked about the role that we could play in helping catalyze other innovators. 

Q:  How do you think about the office’s mission?

Giuseppe: We want to build on exactly why we were created [in August 2018], which is to look at these tough government problems and have an opportunity to impact people across the entire state in a meaningful way. It’s important we do that in partnership with employees across the state, and the people of New Jersey. There are a lot of parties throughout New Jersey who are already working on these tough problems. Our role here is not to come in and provide brand new solutions separate from everyone else, it’s to understand the power of the community, work alongside our users, bring in experts from across the state, across the world, and infuse their thinking and experiences into the solutions that we’re delivering for New Jersey.

Q: Can you talk about your team structure?

Beth: We are a cross disciplinary team that includes policy people, technologists, designers. We’re people with different trainings, skill sets and backgrounds. To Giuseppe’s point, we’re trying to solve a problem, not build a website. If the right solution is a website, great. If it has to be complemented by a policy, great. If we need to do both of these things, we want to be able to address problems effectively with a broader, more agnostic tool kit.

Q: How do you sit within the larger umbrella of the New Jersey government?

Beth: I sit in the Governor’s cabinet and report to the Governor as a cabinet official would do. We work closely with the Governor’s staff. And then we also work with agencies on projects. So, for example, the work that we’re doing on the New Jersey Career Network is a partnership with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. We work as (what I used to describe as) knowledge management consultants, sometimes technology consultants. We very much work in partnership with agencies in the projects that we do, but we report to the Governor.

Q: What’s the hardest challenge that or biggest rethink you encountered as you were getting started?

Beth: This is not unique to state government. At the local level, at the federal level, most governments, as we know, are under resourced, under capacity, and lacking in training, in modern agile, human-centered data-driven ways of building tools with citizens, not just for citizens. The second thing is the importance of creating cross-disciplinary teams or blended teams: bringing together policy and technology, people with design training, legal training, who have the ability to think more holistically about how to solve a problem. That ability to think in a more interdisciplinary way is a really important sort of culture shift. 

And, of course, new technologies (like AI and autonomous vehicles and blockchain) mean thinking about the regulation and the opportunities created by these new technologies. 

Q: Any words of advice for teams approaching similar work?

Giuseppe: I think the key thing is to put the user at the center of the experience at all times and enable our partners to be a part of that journey and experience. We’ve been really fortunate to have wonderful partners across government and different agencies. As we work together to cross these different silos we’ve been able to deliver more and more impact. Use that unique opportunity—in terms of sitting in a place where you can operate across all of government—and bring the power of all of the people across government together.

Beth: Never listen to advice. But do get lots of information. Anything you are working on someone else has already tried. Whether it is in the academy or in government or among social innovators, there are good ideas out there for what works. Figuring out what those are demands talking to residents, talking to experts, talking to other jurisdictions as well as looking at the data on hand to determine what solutions can be brought to bear, whether they have worked “there” and whether they can work “here” for your community. 

More about the NJ Office of Innovation.