Early Chief Innovation Officers Define the Role for Government

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Though few agencies have the position, two of the government’s chief innovation officers see a need for every part of government to innovate.

The federal government is keen on innovation, but only a few federal agencies have a dedicated chief innovation officer, or CINO, position—a relatively new role in the federal government—whose job is to think of new, creative ways to solve problems. A critical aspect of that job is to keep users at the forefront of their innovation.

The National Archives and Records Administration, the Federal Reserve, the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation are federal agencies that have established their own CINOs. A veteran of the emerging position, Pamela Wright is the National Archives’ first chief innovation officer and has served in the role since 2012. 

Pamela Wright, NARA CINO. Courtesy: NARA
Sunayna Tuteja, Fed CINO Courtesy: Federal Reserve

                                                                                                                                                                                                        “Innovation can mean many things, of course, but what really interests me is that combination of a business need and technological solutions," Wright told Nextgov. “It’s using new technologies to turbocharge projects that are created to support our mission—like providing access to our records. At one time, that only meant opening the doors to a facility and allowing people to use the records on-site. Today, it means providing digital access on numerous platforms as well. It means going to the people where they live online—social media, Wikipedia and so many more places—and providing them access to the records.”

Sunayna Tuteja started her role as the chief innovation officer for the Federal Reserve system in February 2021.

“Ultimately, to me, innovation is change management, but change management that helps drive individuals and teams to level up their relevancy,” Tuteja told Nextgov. “The best is yet to come and we have the agency to make it happen. I actually find the construct of innovation very empowering that we don’t have to settle for what we have, or what we’ve had. There is a better way to do it and it’s up to us to figure it out.”

Chief innovation officer: the role

The day to day of this position may vary and innovation may be specific to an agency, but there are several common threads that connect the CINO position across agencies. 

“My role is to question the status quo, to keep an eye on what groundbreaking work is happening outside of the agency and to suggest and support efficient and effective processes, products and solutions for the agency,” Wright said. “My focus is always on the customer experience, so our approach to creating anything has to involve human-centered design.”

Tuteja described her mission as ensuring that innovation is “smart” and “productive” at the Federal Reserve.

“I’ve always maintained that the best innovation comes from the folks that are closest to the end product, or the end platform or the end customer, because they know where the pain points are,” she said.

The structure of the position varies by agency. Wright reports to the Archivist of the United States and she has division directors as her direct reports. She has 35 staff members consisting of archival, technical, web, community and project management specialists. Meanwhile, Tuteja has intentionally kept her team small, at approximately 10 people in the Federal Reserve system’s Chief Innovation Office, but she has more than 100 people across the Federal Reserve system working on initiatives that she is sponsoring or enabling, or who are working for her directly.

“We intentionally have them across the system and satellite, because I don’t need to hoover up all the talent,” Tuteja said. “I want the work to happen where it needs to. Often, people think the decentralized structure of the Fed can be a headwind to innovation; I would actually submit it’s a tailwind to innovation, because I have 12 Reserve Banks and the Board of Governors in D.C. to tap into talent and capabilities. It doesn’t matter if they report to me or not. And so we use a little bit of a hub and spoke model.” 

It costs money to innovate. While Wright and Tuteja didn’t disclose their specific budgets, they stressed the importance of financing innovation and using money wisely.

“The budget is critical,” Tuteja said. “I’ve always said you have to have [objectives and key results], because you need to run innovation like a disciplined business. But that also means you have to fund innovation like a disciplined business, because cheap and cheerful does not go too far…You can’t expect eureka moments while starving the practice, so having that balance is very critical.”

Innovation at the National Archives

For Wright, projects included launching NARA’s first social media program and Citizen Archivist program, as well as developing NARA’s digitization program––now with more than 200 million records available in the catalog. She also oversees the agency’s innovation hub and spearheaded NARA’s launch of the 1950 Census website this past spring.

“I am proud of the work we accomplished this last year on the 1950 Census,” Wright said. “It was a time-bound, high-profile project that took the coordinated collaboration of numerous experts from around the agency. We launched at midnight on April 1, 2022, and it felt like a NASA space launch when we flipped the switch and started seeing people on social media finding their families and posting about it. One of the highlights of my career. We provide AI-empowered [optical character recognition] to allow users to conduct name searches, and—since it is not always perfect, thanks to difficult handwriting—we also provide a way for users to update the names. It employs that great blend of technology and people to make for a great website.”

Wright is currently working on improving the descriptions in the agency’s catalog. 

“I am currently chairing a group of archivists from across the agency on reparative description for the catalog,” Wright said. “Our focus on establishing trusting relationships with underserved and underrepresented communities has been a meaningful learning experience for me, and I am sure the others in the group would say the same. As much as we want to achieve big numbers in the catalog, we must also focus on how we describe the records we hold and which records are most meaningful to communities.”

In terms of what’s next, Wright stated that she wants to “collaborate with my colleagues to get to our first billion records in our online catalog. We currently have around 210 million available through our catalog. We have a goal of getting to 500 million by 2026, and then we are on our way to our first billion. This effort is important, because making records available online democratizes access to the permanent records of the federal government. People who may never be able to visit one of our facilities can access the website through their computer or phone. We have an estimated 13 billion pages of records, so we have much to do.” 

Wright is also “eager to start another AI project that would provide a first draft of metadata for description archivists to use while describing our holdings.”

Innovation at the Federal Reserve

Tuteja’s work at the Federal Reserve is focused on innovation within the system, both with individual parts—like a specific reserve bank or the Federal Reserve System as a whole—and within the business aspects of the Federal Reserve, like supervision and regulation or payments. She noted that the Federal Reserve must future-cast to address the issues of tomorrow.

“One of our core objectives is: how do you continue to enable and empower all of our reserve banks and the Board of Governors to lead innovation within their span of control?” she said. “What are some things that we have to take on that are bold problem statements that we can only do once as the Federal Reserve System?” 

For example, when it comes to the Central Bank’s digital currencies, “If you’re going to interrogate what is the future modality of the U.S. dollar, you can’t do that in many small experiments, you have to take a franchise view. So that’s how my team and I tackle our portfolio, from core innovation to bold innovation.”

In addition to digital currencies, Tuteja and her team are also looking at quantum computing and the S-curve of technologies—which shows the trajectory of innovation and maturity for a new technology—for the Federal Reserve. According to Tuteja, it is important to consider what things will look like in 10 years and work backwards to see what investments need to be made today and in the near-future. 

“Quantum computing is very early in its S-curve [for] tracking a maturity. However, it behooves us to be learning about it, to be exploring it and experimenting with it,” Tuteja said. “Because if and when there’s a Cambrian explosion, when quantum becomes mainstream, there are material consequences to us, but also material opportunities to us. So from a cybersecurity perspective, we need to understand this technology so we can be ready… What my team and I do is we take a look at those nascent technologies as they’re coming up the S-curve.” 

Again, she noted that the metaverse, Web3, and augmented and virtual reality are also in the early stages, making it important to start to use and understand them.

“We take the stand for the organization to say, ‘let’s start studying, let’s start researching, let’s start experimenting and exploring.’ And also ask ourselves, ‘where can it add value in our business?’ It’s not just researching, but it’s understanding what utility can it drive to the business of the Fed.”

Picking which technology to pursue

Agencies must balance their finite resources—time, talent and capital—with innovation and experimentation. 

For Tuteja it is a process of answering a few questions: 

  • “What is the problem we’re trying to solve? The gnarlier the problem, the better, because where there’s friction, there’s opportunity for disruption.” 
  • “Are we interrogating this problem statement and the potential solution to this problem with an obsession on the end customer or end user? Because everything we do, at the end of the day, somebody’s consuming that product or experience, whether it’s internal, or the American consumer.” 
  • “Can we tackle [the problem] by using a frontier technology? So the solution that we’re creating is not just good for like a five-month shelf life, that we’re giving it a five-years or 15-years shelf life.” 

She noted that asking these three questions helps to focus the agency and keep it relevant in serving constituents.

“You’re also recognizing that it’s often not one or the other of this technology, it’s often the confluence of many technologies that creates that eureka moment,” Tuteja said.

The decentralized ecosystem of the Federal Reserve System can be an asset, not a liability, Tuteja explained, if her office is intentional and uses change management, while cultivating a culture of change and innovation.

“In order for us to do evergreen innovation, it’s actually an eclectic combination of the bold and the boring,” Tuteja said. “In order for us to do bold things, we actually have to do a lot of boring unsexy things that nobody wants to talk about. But it’s because you do those boring things consistently that you can ship those bold wins.” 

Innovation at other agencies and across the federal government

While not every agency has this position, both Wright and Tuteja noted the importance of CINOs to further agency innovation. 

“Every agency needs to innovate—the world is constantly changing, and we must evolve with it,” Wright said. “How innovation is applied probably has to be unique to each agency. Some make use of innovation labs as separate entities from the main business lines, while others only integrate innovation into production. And then there are some like us, who are separate organizationally but also work in some of the major business lines of the agency.” 

Tuteja added that chief innovation officers, or other appropriate senior leaders, can help agencies be more focused and bullish on innovation. 

“The fact that more and more government agencies are putting their money where their mouth is and not just saying ‘we want to do innovation.’ But investing in it as an evergreen practice with a senior leader role, like a chief innovation officer, I think, is a very strong signal and frankly, very bullish for the United States,” Tuteja said. “If you think about America, the story of America is a story of innovation, and the fact that the public sector continues to lean into it, I think, is a strong, bullish signal.”

This article has been updated to reflect information about DOT’s CINO.