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Gearing Up for the Future: New Jersey Gets its First Innovation Chief

Veteran of Obama administration, tech and academic worlds, is given job of harnessing tech to update government in New Jersey

Beth Simone Noveck
Beth Simone Noveck, New Jersey's new Chief Innovation Oficer

New Jersey is making serious efforts to become one of the most innovative and technologically engaged states in the nation, with building an “innovation economy” an oft-stated priority for Gov. Phil Murphy. Yesterday, the governor pointed up that commitment by naming the state’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer.

The person named to the new position is Beth Simone Noveck, who’s looking to start the innovation revolution in Trenton, by making state government more tech savvy and public-minded. Her appointment signals the Murphy administration’s intent to use data to shape government decision-making.

“Above all, my goal is to collaborate with my colleagues [in state government] in doing work that improves people's lives.” Noveck said. “We need to think how we can improve [state] websites and mobile services to provide people with what they need. Looking internally, how we can modernize and improve the way government solves problems in terms of using tech and innovation to improve the skillset of government workers.”

Bringing New Jersey up to speed

The position comes with a $140,938 annual salary and includes ambitious — and nebulous — responsibilities including: using technology to make government services more effective, solve public problems, collaborate with the private sector and higher education institutions, make government data more accessible and user-friendly, and encourage entrepreneurship and small business growth in the state.

Noveck is a Toms River native with a resume deep in national and international experience integrating technology, government, and an engaged citizenry. Murphy said he hopes she’ll put her project management skills to work bringing New Jersey up to speed with states like Massachusetts, Washington, and Colorado which already have developed strong state innovation models.

Gov. Phil Murphy
Credit: NJ Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy signs legislation re-establishing and funding the Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology.

Accompanying Noveck’s appointment, Murphy this week signed a bill re-establishing and funding the Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology. The group had been defunded back in 2010 but will be given $1 million to reconvene, appoint a board, and begin seeking more funding to develop and manage scientific research projects and workforce training programs across the state.

The idea of an innovation officer was something that originated in the tech world, then jumped to corporations, and is now changing the way governments are operating. Noveck said her job is less like that of a chief information officer — New Jersey already has a Chief Technology Officer, Christopher Rein, who oversees the Office of Information Technology and manages the back-end infrastructure to develop and run state websites — and more like a multiplatform project manager.

Noveck: ‘It’s not tech for tech’s sake’

“The innovation officer role is about advancing the administration's policies using tech and innovation at its center. I’ll look at how tech innovation can serve priorities ranging from healthcare to education to transportation ... It’s not tech for tech’s sake,” Noveck said.

Other states and cities across the U.S. have experimented with innovation teams, Colorado and Massachusetts most notably on the state side and Jersey City locally. The Jersey City government received grants through the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Team program to use in-house “innovation consultants” to tackle mayoral priorities. They’re in their second year and have focused on stimulating small-business job growth and stormwater management in and around the city.

Noveck has been watching, and participating in, the nationwide movement for years.

She was the first United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House open government Initiative in the administration of former President Barack Obama. She also served as senior adviser for open government to British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Working toward open ‘governance’

She’s currently a professor at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering where she directs the Governance Lab (GovLab) and its MacArthur Research Network on “opening governance.”

Noveck said now is the perfect time to start focusing on innovation in government and New Jersey is “the perfect place” for it. The state has a well-developed history in the biotech and healthcare sectors and the new innovation chief said she’s looking to build on what former administrations have already cultivated.

“When I worked for Obama .... there was a huge hurdle to convince people [in the public] that the internet is not bad, that data is useful, and citizens are smart and we ought to engage them more… In New Jersey, the willingness is already there and the know-how is already there.... it’s a matter of execution,” Noveck said.

Through her work at the GovLab, Noveck has taken on projects to devise solutions to corruption in Mexico, peer-review patents in the U.S. and establish technical infrastructure to use government data to inform smart policymaking.

But her efforts will likely differ from attempts during the time of former Gov. Chris Christie to make government more transparent, when the Legislature made strides at getting data online and publicly available, but not necessarily making it user-friendly.

Making data more accessible

Tech Data Portal

There are the beginning threads of data accessibility in the state — the Open Data Portal and the state Transparency Center — which include links to financial data, salaries for state employees, pension information, and other downloadable spreadsheets. However, the sites are not easy to navigate and often redirect users to department homepages instead of data sources.

What this demonstrates is something Noveck calls the difference between “open” government and “transparent” government.

“Transparent government is one in which yes, there’s a window open into government, but it’s an almost hostile approach. [Government] sits back and waits for citizens and journalists to demand information,” Noveck said. “My goal is to shift from a passive approach to active approach. To publish and release information and actively collaborate with businesses, citizens, and universities to use that information to improve delivery of services.”

Noveck said her focus is on “combining participation and collaboration with transparency,” to use the data that states and governments already have to empower residents and inform lawmakers.

“Simply throwing data over the transom doesn't change how government works.” Noveck said in a 2012 TED talk about open data in governments. “It doesn’t get anybody to do anything with that data to change lives, to solve problems, and it doesn’t change government. What it does is create an adversarial relationship between civil society and government over the control and ownership of information.”

More fertile ground for startups

Beth Simone Noveck
Beth Simone Noveck giving 2012 TED talk on need for more open-source government.

In addition to opening the government, Noveck said she’ll be working to increase opportunities for startups and public-private partnerships to take root in the state.

The new innovation officer shares the open-government view with State Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset), a physicist and chair of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee. Zwicker has been working for years on the legislative side to establish “innovation hubs” across the state and to reclaim New Jersey’s standing as a biotech leader. He said Noveck’s appointment combined with Murphy’s move to revive the state commission on science, innovation, and tech is a signal that the administration is making serious investments in New Jersey’s future.

“Her credentials are impeccable, we couldn’t get a better person,” Zwicker said of Noveck. “She’s got such a tremendous amount of different experience in various fields. The real question I’m curious about is where is she going to focus ... and how can I help?” Zwicker said. He said he’ll meet with Noveck as soon as possible to discuss how to work together.

“This is really about New Jersey’s long-term future. None of this is going to be instantaneous. It’s going to put New Jersey on a path for sustained job growth, open information, and a more effective government,” Zwicker said.

Streamlining government and simultaneously nurturing local startups may seem near impossible to some, but Noveck is optimistic.

“My number one challenge is going to be: too many things to do and not enough time,” Noveck said. “There’s so much exciting innovative capacity in the state. How do we unlock that and tap it as quickly as possible?... I’ve got a lot of people to meet with and a lot of good to figure out how to do.”

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