Digital Services in the Garden State: Q&A with the New Jersey Office of Innovation
We caught up with NJ’s Chief Innovation Officer Beth Simone Noveck, and Giuseppe Morgana, the team’s digital director, about delivering government services to New Jerseyans in the digital age.
What is the New Jersey Office of Innovation?
Beth Simone Noveck: The Office of Innovation was founded to develop new ways of working and solving problems across government agencies to improve policy, the services the State of New Jersey provides to its citizens, and grow the state’s innovation economy. Simply put, we work to improve the lives of New Jerseyans by working with residents, rather than for them, to ensure that we are tackling the issues that are important to people as they experience them. We also place a lot of emphasis on tapping people’s know how to come up with solutions and use data and evidence to ensure that those solutions will work. It is of paramount importance to me that we learn more open, engaged and informed ways of solving problems together. This is why one of our flagship projects is our Innovation Skills Accelerator, which provides free training on how to solve public problems in the 21st century.
What prompted the creation of your office? How did your office get started?
Beth Simone Noveck: Governor Murphy appointed me in August 2018 as part of his focus on New Jersey’s innovation economy. While the State already had an Office of Information Technology managing the state’s IT infrastructure, the Office of Innovation collaborates with State departments and the Governor’s Office to build innovative citizen-facing services. That means more than just making a slick website. Our Digital Lab is using best available research and evidence to fundamentally change the kinds of opportunities we can deliver using new technology. For example, instead of having a resident search for information about government services, we can use artificial intelligence to match a job seeker to the right information for them at the stage of the job search. We are thinking about how to use technology to achieve policy priorities as well as thinking about how to take advantage of new technology to grow the State’s economy and how to responsibly regulate it.
What’s your relationship with other state government offices? How do you identify projects and take on new work?
Beth Simone Noveck: As a cabinet official, I report to the Governor, and our team works closely with his staff and in partnership with other Administration departments and agencies. Our projects are undertaken in partnership with teams from other departments, and they are integral to our success. Much of what we do is to support other departments and agencies in their efforts to use tech, data and innovation to work differently. We take on projects that are: 1) core priorities for the Governor, 2) involve the application of policy, technology, and design, and 3) where we have willing collaborators inside and outside of government. Our work is agile so we ensure with any project that we can make a difference quickly. For example, we were thrilled to work with colleagues at Motor Vehicles to improve the 5% of their website that is used by 90% of users in a few weeks.
Giuseppe Morgana: We sit on the same side of the table and take advantage of each others’ expertise and experience as we tackle problems together. That is also true of the civil society partners that we work with. This collaborative approach to projects ensures that we are all in it together and surfaces more opportunities to work together. We have already had agencies who partnered with us for one project invite our team to serve in consultative roles on other work. We think there will be more of this as agencies get to know us, and learn the value that we can add by partnering together.
What is a unique problem faced by the people of New Jersey and how did you/are you working to solve it?
Giuseppe Morgana: While New Jersey has relatively low unemployment, 30% of our state’s unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer, a rate well above the national average. The State offers services via one-stop career centers throughout the state, however, together with our partners, we saw a great opportunity to reach a much larger population of job seekers in NJ that could benefit from public services via new channels. Our team is working with the Department of Labor and Rutgers University’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development to create digital tools that help job seekers prepare for, find, and apply for opportunities. The New Jersey Career Network, which launched in beta at the beginning of this year, is being developed with job seekers in New Jersey and will include a mobile-friendly web app that guides individuals in their career search.
What skill sets and roles do you look to have on your team?
Beth Simone Noveck: The Office is an integrated team of policy experts, engineers, project managers, and designers. We have a growing team of twelve people. But we expand our capacity by partnering with other agencies, with universities, with the private sector, and with citizens to avail ourselves of additional talent and good ideas. For example, to formulate policy on the future of work and the impact of technology on jobs, we are reaching out to workers across the state to get their input on how they define the problems and to solicit their input on how to solve them. We are a learning organization and pride ourselves on learning from people, learning from data, and learning from evidence of what works elsewhere to be effective here in New Jersey. We also share what we learn. For example, all the materials we read and use for our Future of Work task force, we share online for the benefit of other states. The most important mindset, therefore, is curiosity and that demands the skills and ability to know how to ask.
How do you define innovation? What is not considered innovation?
Beth Simone Noveck: If you ask 10 people for a definition of innovation, you are likely to get 10 different answers. To keep it simple, our definition is doing things differently to achieve positive change. We feel strongly that innovation is not something that this office can deliver on its own. The idea that we can develop new ideas off to the side while the rest of the public sector goes on about its business is antithetical to innovation. We want to catalyze positive change across government and around the state.
You recently launched Business.NJ.gov. Can you tell us a little bit about it? What does it do and who does it help?
Giuseppe Morgana: The beta launch of Business.NJ.gov is a first step in re-imagining a “digital front door” for all of the services a business might need from the state to start, operate and grow effectively. The State’s Business Action Center already provides excellent services, and as part of this initiative, we are working together to enable a digital experience to complement existing offerings and increase accessibility of services and information.
We are excited about this project for a few reasons. First is the value it will deliver New Jersey businesses, especially small and growing ones which may not have the in-house expertise to navigate this process. Second, this is a great example of an experience that crosses multiple agencies, and we think we will learn alot from the creation and implementation of digital tools that we can apply to other projects. Finally, we launched the first version of the website using open-source code and content that was first developed by the city of San Francisco and built upon by the city of Los Angeles. Some of our partners weren’t familiar with open-source tech, so this was a great opportunity to expose them to its benefits.
Giuseppe, having served at USDS, what lessons learned are you able to apply to your work in NJ?
Giuseppe Morgana: I was incredibly fortunate to learn many lessons that apply directly to our work in New Jersey. Many of these lessons are reflected through the USDS values and Digital Service Playbook — which continue to serve as guides for our work. If I were to pick a few lessons to share, the first would be that empathy is the key to being able to have a meaningful impact — ranging from the times when we are gaining a deeper understanding of an individual’s journey to when we are trying to navigate an outdated government system or process. The second lesson is that we can have an outsized, meaningful impact if we give great people the space and support to work collaboratively on important problems.
What do you think digital service teams in the federal government can learn from states?
Giuseppe Morgana: There’s a great opportunity to continue to exchange ideas and learn from the innovation that is happening at the local level. Often times, local and state teams can test concepts rapidly — and provide insights from varied environments that can inform efforts that are being taken at a federal level. When we launched one of our first projects focused on engagement with the public and colleagues across the state, we were able to build upon the work of other open innovation initiatives — including those at the federal level — and leverage an open source tool, Your Priorities, to rapidly stand up a state-wide government employee challenge. The beta launch will inform future iterations that will be open to the general public and also offers an opportunity to share back new lessons with our local and federal partners. This desire to share learnings with other stakeholders is one of the reasons we’re very excited to be working with the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation to document our “lessons learned” and the way we work — to help other governments learn from our journey and build on our efforts.
What are you excited about doing next and what’s on your roadmap for 2020?
Beth Simone Noveck: For 2020, we want to increase the reach of our efforts, for example, by growing the number of long-term unemployed that we are helping to get jobs with our digital coaching program. We want to make data and information about the quality of training programs transparent and accessible to all through our Data for the American Dream project. We want to make it easier for people to start and grow a business with the government helping them rather than getting in the way. We want to triple the number of people taking our Innovation Skills Accelerator online program, enabling them to go through our Innovation Bootcamp and take new public interest projects from idea to implementation. We have a raft of exciting new policies and innovations designed to address the challenges and opportunities created by the impact of technology on work that we will be rolling out, as well as taking on projects in new domains and growing our team. Come join us!
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