This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Your Government Digital Transformation Playbook: Managing the People, Processes and Technology.” Download the full guide here.
The state of Rhode Island has the potential to become the innovation hub for New England and a model for the rest of the country. Through partnerships with research institutions, government agencies, nonprofits and private industry, the Rhode Island Office of Innovation is working to accelerate innovation in government and technology in the Ocean State.
The office functions as the catalyst for speeding innovations in the state and redesigning government to be more efficient and responsive to citizen needs. In an interview with GovLoop, Kevin Parker, Director of Government Innovation, discussed how Rhode Island is digitally transforming government by improving digital accessibility and cross-agency collaboration.
Improving Digital Accessibility in Rhode Island
One of the office’s main goals is to hasten innovation from inside government and promote digital equity. “We want to make sure we have everyone connected and that everyone’s on the network,” Parker said. “Twenty-six percent of Rhode Islanders don’t have high-speed internet at home.”
The office is responsible for ensuring digital equity to reduce barriers to reliable internet access. “An important component of the digital economy is a digital front door to government,” Parker said. “People may not have access to public services online, and the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, along with Rhode Island Housing and the Office of Library and Information Services, want to address that.”
To promote digital fairness, the office sought industry partners to help reduce barriers to accessing networks. “We put out a request for information for industry to respond in reducing barriers to connectivity, such as a 5G network,” Parker said. “We also provide digital literacy training to citizens via municipal public housing authorities with our ConnectRI Initiative. So, we can not only be sensitive about the utility providers to all parts of Rhode Island, but also give people direct access to the hardware and the knowledge to connect.”
In addition to leveling the digital playing field, the office’s Division of Information Technology is working to help citizens interact with government through various digital channels, including mobile apps, websites and other digital platforms.
“We have to make sure that we not only have websites for people who are on a desktop, but also mobile-friendly applications,” Parker said. For example, citizens should be able to get the information they need to get a fishing license through the Department of Environmental Management’s website, or pay their taxes through the Department of Revenue’s website.
“We want to design government for the user and design it in a way that people are accessing their government in a digital time,” Parker added.
Promoting Cross-Agency Collaboration Through the Innovation League
In an effort to put government employees at the forefront of navigating digital transformation, the Rhode Island Office of Innovation developed a yearlong training program for government employees in using nontraditional approaches to solve tough problems. The program, known as the Government Innovation League, is comprised of one or two rising leaders from each state agency who work with the office for eight to 10 hours per week on their agencies’ biggest challenges.
“We carve out the time and space for Leaguers to think about how they can deliver and design a government with the end user in mind,” Parker said. “And what is not surprising is that many of their projects, even though they are not technologists themselves, have digital components to them.”
When government employees work together to solve problems, they often gain more awareness of citizens’ needs and how to meet them through digital accessibility. Specifically, league participants conduct research on end users and how they access government information or research a government agency or service.
“When you dig into these problems, you gain some empathy for either a citizen, an employee or a visitor through a number of techniques we use at the Innovation League,” Parker said. “Whether it’s user observations, user research [or] user shadowing, the employees gain really valuable insight.”
By leveraging a version of Google’s 20 percent time with a cross-agency cohort program, the league helps state employees gain a better sense of the digital needs of the citizens they serve.
Advice to Other States
Based on Parker’s previous experience working with Boston and Las Vegas on improving digital communications and documents, his primary advice is to focus on creating a consistent and friendly digital voice and brand, promote peer mentoring to share talents and information, and enhance collaboration efforts through a network of coinnovators.
Digital voice and brand: “Having shareable tools, including a style guide or governance document, is really helpful,” Parker said. “There has to be a crosswalk between the executive communications team and the authors of the content for there to be a consistent voice. One thing we’re conscious of [in Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation] is for the content to feel familiar, friendly, clear and intuitive to enhance the end user experience.”
Peer mentoring: To cultivate the technology skill sets needed for digital transformation, the league serves as an ideal example as it encourages peer mentoring and open communications needed for innovation.
“A community of practice is so important,” Parker said. “The most powerful thing about the Innovation League is that they know they’re not alone and have a co-network of innovators across the state. They can be vulnerable with one another and share ideas and best practices, even when there are pitfalls.”
Enhanced collaboration: Lastly, Parker emphasized that digital transformation does not come out of just one office. “Innovation doesn’t exist in one office or special group. It’s a team effort. Collaboration with diverse stakeholders from different perspectives and expertise is mission-critical. Whereas leadership support is important, creativity doesn’t only come from the top. You need employees embedded in the culture to help change and facilitate the moving puzzle pieces for organizational transformation.”
Ultimately, the Ocean State is taking digital transformation in state government to new levels. Harnessing cross-agency collaboration and improving digital accessibility are key to improving digital transformation for public servants and citizens alike.