Mark Schwartz, the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, explains how innovation and experimentation play into his problem-solving process.
When considering the world's most innovative organizations, the federal government is typically low on most people's list. But, Mark Schwartz, the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said that it is exactly the reason why he's pushing for more innovation and experimentation.
In a interview with CXOTalk, Schwartz explained that the US government, like many other organizations, often gets in a pattern of repeating something many times until it becomes the way of doing things, which can lead to a certain pride in the way problems are handled. Innovation, however, allows you to look at a problem with fresh eyes and try to figure out a more effective or creative solution.
In that way, innovation is a form of humility.
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"I like to think that I don't have all the answers, and innovation, to me, has to do with figuring out what the right experiments are, or what the right learning process is, to solve problems," Schwartz said.
So, how does one encourage innovation within their organization? Schwartz said that it starts with a cross-pollination of ideas. He encouraged business leaders to look outside of their department or organization and bring in experience from other disciplines, not just IT, to help jump-start some ideas. This, he said, helps to generate a channel of new approaches to play with.
Another step that Schwartz has been taking is trying to make experimentation more accessible.
"In order to really make that work as a CIO, what I found I need to do is create an environment where experiments are not only encouraged and tolerated, but where you reduce the risk and cost of doing experiments," Schwartz said.
For example, the USCIS has begun moving to the public cloud. This way, Schwartz said, his team can stand up infrastructure to run an experiment with, and tear it down quickly if the experiment doesn't work. That reduces both the cost and the timeframe of these experiments and encourages innovation.
Schwartz said that the USCIS processes roughly seven million applications a year for procedures such as naturalization, refugee status, asylum, foreign adoptions, and green card applications. Right now, they are working on converting all their paper-based processes into electronic ones, so being able to experiment is key.
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Other tools that Schwartz relies on are agile IT, dev ops, and lean methodology. But, because the government being known for its aversion to risk and fear of experimentation, these tools can be difficult to implement.
"I think our challenge really is to figure out how to make government IT lean, without necessarily changing what the government values, and making sure that we are delivering all of those things," Schwartz said.
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