What's Possible

This Mover and Shaker Is Changing How Californians Use Technology

September 23, 2016
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This Mover and Shaker Is Changing How Californians Use Technology
For Amy Tong, the key to innovation is addressing people's barriers about progress. Courtesy of NBC/Universal
Instead of simply employing digital innovation to tweak government operations, Amy Tong is using it in fundamentally new ways.

Managing the technology that undergirds a $171-billion, 228,000-employee operation is no easy task. And it’s even harder when working under laws that sometimes limit your capabilities. Yet that’s the job for which Amy Tong, a longtime California public employee who has overseen technology for the state lottery, retirement system, taxes and water, was sworn in to earlier this summer. As the new chief information officer for the Golden State and recent speaker at NBCU’s Millennial Tech & Change Summit, Tong must keep all the existing technology systems operational, while trying to make them more adaptable to current usage. In an interview with NationSwell, Tong explained her formula for making state government more streamlined and the lessons she’s learned from Silicon Valley.

Let’s start with the challenges you’re up against. What are the unique barriers state government faces when updating its technology?
One is just the sheer size of state government. When it comes to the utilization of technology, it’s serving the public in a much bigger volume than a lot of cities and counties would normally face. One could say, “Well, the private sector — places like Google — might serve even more.” But the type of information that we collect as a public sector demands the best protection. When it comes to health and human services, law enforcement or governmental affairs, there’s a huge amount of information security and checks and balances that needs to happen. This public data is probably the most sensitive [that exists], so government-run technology systems tend to be more complicated and large. Second, because they’re so large and complex, it’s very costly to update them. I’ll give an example: For our 30-year-old child-welfare system, our regional estimate is half a billion dollars.

As an alternative to costly upgrades, government seems to be moving toward breaking down its massive IT projects into bite-size pieces. Do you have an example of how you’re doing that in California?
We’re taking an alternative approach to upgrading the child-welfare system. Our intent with a more bite-size approach is that each smaller module can be delivered to the end user a lot sooner. For social workers, who are our end users, that means focusing initially on the intake process — which is the first step they take when assessing a child-welfare case — and moving it to a more mobile-based technology. Now, the rest of the steps — let’s say there are five more before a child can be placed into a safe environment — will continue to use the existing system to tie them together, which means we can roll out each of the upgrades one by one, as opposed to waiting until the entire system is upgraded.

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How do you get other state agencies to participate in that innovation? Do you need to convince them to join you?
We are very fortunate that there are a lot of innovators and change agents in the state of California. When we talk about innovation, we’re not necessarily talking about new tools or something you can go play with. It’s really about addressing the barriers people have in moving innovation forward. With this renewed effort and engagement, I often hear the comment, “Yeah, let’s do this!” In the past, people [were less enthusiastic] and they’d say, “We’d like to do things more innovatively, but because of this policy or this regulation or this statute, we can’t.”

What I’ve shared from my experience is the idea that rather than seeing what we can tweak, let’s look at what we can do that’s fundamentally different. I ask the question, “When was the last time you actually read the statute? When was the last time you read the policy that gives you the perception you couldn’t do things differently?” Nine out of 10 times, they say they hadn’t read it; it was just what somebody once said. After you show them the language a couple of times, they see it’s not as constrained as they think. That’s when the ideas start coming out. In some ways, it’s fairly liberating for me to see that it doesn’t take a lot to spark people’s desire to innovate. Once that door’s open, oh my gosh, the ideas will wow you.

You recently created a new Office of Digital Innovation and Technology Engagement. What do you hope that will accomplish?
Number one: By simply using the term “digital innovation,” we’re already setting the tone of what we’re trying to accomplish, which is fresh ideas and innovative ways to solve problems. We understand that, in this day and age, many businesses are looking for technology solutions. We’re hoping to set a tone that the state Department of Technology is not only here to keep the lights on and make sure the existing system is operating well, but also that we’re very much into innovation.

Number two: Our biggest goal is to help individual programs achieve what they need to achieve. The Office of Digital Innovation is providing them infrastructure support, such as the Innovation Lab that we recently launched, so that program agencies, like the California Environmental Protection Agency or Health and Human Services, can say, “Hey, I’ve got this problem. I want to develop some solutions. I just need a sandbox to do it in.” They could come to our lab, which is part of this office, to try out new things without having to invest a lot.

Silicon Valley obviously looms large in people’s perception of California. What can the state government learn from what those techies are doing?
For both the public and private sector, entities get bigger and bigger every year, with process on top of process on top of process. It can bog down an organization. By talking with a lot of the entrepreneurial firms, we get down to the basics. Instead of somebody taking 10 steps to get from A to B, have we ever looked at the minimum number of steps to achieve the same results? Maybe it’s minus the bells and whistles, but you get what you need. A lot of these entrepreneurs will say to keep it simple and streamlined. Don’t overcomplicate things. That’s my motto as well, and it’s what’s helping the state look at things differently.

You’ve been overseeing technology for California’s government for 22 years. What are you most proud of?
I’ve been fortunate that my career has led me to where I am today, and I have surrounded myself with a lot of good people, mentors and others I can learn from. But the greatest accomplishment, I would have to say, is yet to come. We’ll see how much more we can do in the next few years of the administration.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

Homepage photo courtesy of NBC/Universal.

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