Fix The Fear Factor In Government Innovation

Fear of failure breeds failure. CIOs must help change this dynamic as private and public sector minds work together on unlocking government big data.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

October 9, 2012

5 Min Read

IW500: 15 Top Government Tech Innovators

IW500: 15 Top Government Tech Innovators

IW500: 15 Top Government Tech Innovators (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Putting aside fear doesn't mean that elected officials and government employees should start jumping from airplanes without parachutes. Some level of sensibility (otherwise known as risk management) is, of course, needed. But again, organizations should look to their business technology leaders as experienced risk managers, whether it's traditional information security risk management or the procurement risk/benefit conversation of "do the benefits of using an new startup that offers less expensive and more powerful technology outweigh the risks of that startup being gone in a year?"

Even something as obvious as "let's improve access to open data" has its share of risks. Yes, open data can create business opportunity. Yes, open data creates more transparent government. But during one of the unconference sessions, we discussed how mashups of open data can create unintended intelligence consequences, for example, thieves taking advantage of power grid data and other data sources to figure out when people aren't home and when the best times to break in are. (I'm not making this up: one attendee assured me that this was the case.) And risks aren't limited to direct harms, there are social harms. During one discussion about a municipality's crime mapping portal, it came out that during beta testing, it was possible to discover the addresses of rape victims, which is data that just about nobody would wish to be widely disseminated: What if that's one of YOUR loved ones? Yet, these types of problems can be mitigated by a public conversation about what data sets make sense to publish as part of a community's open data strategy.

My point: a thoughtful conversation is needed, but it doesn't happen if government employees are too afraid to start it.

Perhaps the MOST scary conversation of all is the "two way versus one way" conversation. That is, many government agencies feel that publishing public information is the role of government. But open data and technology-engagement champion Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, said in a keynote at the summit, "Open government means communication that is a conversation--not just TO but WITH citizens." Resourcing is one of the key reasons given by government employees who want to keep the conversation one way. But I suspect that the fear is the real reason. A two-way conversation is more nuanced and complex, and easier to screw up. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be having it.

One of the folks that I talked to at the conference put it like this: This "government innovation" movement is really about fixing culture and citizen engagement through technology. Whether or not it would be happening without the tech is a moot point: It IS happening. And, in the same way that cloud computing is a tech-and-paradigm-shift kind of thing, Gov 2.0 is something that's coming whether you want it to or not. If you don't embrace it in advance, it will happen TO you and you won't be prepared or get the outcome that you might want to have.

In the face of fear, those of us who are first through the wall can do a few things to ease the scariness, and even the bloodiness:

>> Establish common ground. During "the citizen experience" forum, MC Hammer (no, I am not making this up) and angel investor Ron Conway made it pretty clear that you can get started with government transformation by focusing on four letters: JOBS. Things that EVERYONE in your community can agree upon makes it easier to have the difficult conversations about change, since the goal is universally desired.

>> Find your posse. When you're doing something scary, it helps to know that you're not totally alone in the world. People like the ones associated with Code for America form a cadre of experience and support that can increase success and decrease fear. I don't want to use dopey jargon like "centers of excellence" or suggest that hanging out with awesome people will save the world, but, I do think that there is something extremely special about the Code for America movement. This is a community of people who are willing to take some degree of risk, people for whom improvement in government matters more than 100% job security. It's inspiring, fear-dampening, AND provides motivation and expertise.

>> Have an alternative. Fearful government employees would do well to heed the advice of entrepreneur and business advisor Pam Slim, who says that it's good for large organizations and for those who work for large organizations to have a life outside of work. If government employees have only one option, of course it's brutally scary to take a risk. But risks must be taken. Everyone's "life diversity" (or what Pam affectionately calls a "side hustle") is different. Maybe you're not making money with your side hustle, maybe you're just massively involved with volunteer work. Point is, you have what I call "social resiliency" on your side--you know that there are people who will be there for you if something goes wrong at work.

Finally, there's something to be said for framing government transformation as something of a renegade act towards the status quo. There are those in government who are deeply dissatisfied with their ability to make a difference, with how enmired they are in the quagmire of tech-disabled bureaucracy. There are those who are grateful when a door gets opened, and they'll do anything to see that the mission to improve things gets accomplished. Or as one Tweet to Code for America's founder Jen Pahlka went, "Thanks for making IT feel like punk rock."

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights