Innovation in Local Government: An Interview with ICMA Chief Technology and Innovation Officer Xavier Hughes

Amy Ahner talks to ICMA's chief technology and innovation officer about 21st century innovation in local government.

BLOG POST | Jul 18, 2018
Xavier Hughes

He served as head of global growth for Stae, a venture-backed smart cities, operational intelligence platform. He also served as the chief innovation officer at the U.S. Department of Labor—the first in the U.S. government. So, how did Xavier Hughes (XH) get to ICMA? And what are his views on innovation, smart communities, and data analytics in local government? Amy Ahner (AA), director of administrative services, Glenview, Illinois, and chair of the Smart Communities Advisory Board at ICMA, sat down with him to find out more about his philosophy concerning innovation.

AA: Tell us about the role of the chief technology and innovation officer (CTIO) at ICMA? How did you find yourself in that role?

XH: The role of CTIO at ICMA is truly unique and full of opportunity. First and foremost, we are a trusted partner for more than 11,000 members across the United States and abroad. As an organization that has been around for 100 years, ICMA has built meaningful and long-lasting relationships, which speaks to the responsibility we owe to each and every single one of them.

From a technology and innovation point of view, we are responsible for providing appropriate, effective, and intuitive frameworks and solutions to our clients, and we simply can’t be reckless and expose our local government members to unfiltered risk. As Voltaire said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Which brings me to the second half of your question: How did I end up at ICMA? A combination of events that transpired throughout my professional life led me to this role. I was exposed to public sector work at a very early age and have always gravitated towards it. I’ve had the tremendous privilege and fortune of working in various levels of government, from county government to the White House.

When I left the Obama administration, I began working in the smart city space and learned a lot about the current state of affairs on that front. Eventually, an acquaintance of mine contacted me and informed me that ICMA was looking for a CTIO. I did some research and spoke to friends like Steve Hagerty, mayor of Evanston, who told me that if ICMA offered the opportunity, I should take it. And so I did, and I’ve never been happier.

AA: What does it mean to be innovative? 

XH: Innovation has become such a buzzword but in reality, few individuals and organizations truly understand what it means and how to do it in an effective and self-perpetuating manner. True innovation is not just changing something with the blind hope that it improves. Any and all responsible innovation must be planned, measured, evaluated, and continuously improved. I call it "responsible prototyping." It’s not a one-time shot, it’s a lifelong commitment that goes beyond individual administrations and policy agendas.

Innovation and political leanings must be bifurcated in government; otherwise, taxpayer dollars are ill-spent for the purpose of short-term capital gains. Innovation is as much a playbook as it is a platform to propel success and prosperity across people, process, policy data, and technology ventures.

AA: Could you provide an example or two of real innovations that you’ve seen in government?

XH: One of the most powerful examples of government innovation that I have encountered is 18F. It is an office within the General Services Administration located in Washington, D.C., that collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology.

18F develops partnerships with agencies to help them deliver exceptional digital experiences that address their strategic initiatives. They aim to strengthen government technology practices in ways that last beyond traditional formal partnerships by practicing user-centered development, testing to validate hypotheses, shipping often, and deploying products in the open.

This new operation allowed us to strengthen our technology talent roster, lower operational costs, improve product engineering and delivery, and provide outstanding value to the American people.

AA: Why is innovation so important in local government today? 

XH: Innovation is critical in all levels and areas of government. It fuels creativity, progress, and enhances our value proposition to constituents, private sector, nonprofits, academia, and many others. Civic innovation’s impact is broad and invaluable. Just take a look at what is happening in the mobility space: e-scooters, dock-less bikes, ride-sharing; thousands of part- and full-time jobs have been generated due to technological and urban innovation. That represents hundreds of millions of dollars onto our economy and labor force.    

AA: There’s a lot of buzz around what it means to be a "smart community." What does that mean to you?

XH: A smart community to me means a specific thing: a local community’s ability to deliver services to constituents in a simple, seamless, and logical manner that enriches their quality of life and limits their frustration. All driven by data insight, community preferences, and local trends.

AA: What is the role of data and analytics in innovation?

XH: They play a significant, if not critical, part due to their ability to offer rich insights into actions and events that we have not traditionally tracked or measured. Nowadays, we are measuring things that in the past we took for granted, and the results have been overwhelming. Through data science, we can identify public safety pain points and trends, find new ways of managing our infrastructure, formulate superior and more inclusive housing projects, and speed up our service delivery. 

AA: What are some innovative ways local governments are applying data?

XH: One way that local communities are using data is to learn about and combat the opioid epidemic in America. We are now beginning to use water sensors to identify red-zone opioid areas and then deploy appropriate services to better prevent loss of life and eradicate addiction in lasting ways.

AA: When you talk about local government and technology five-plus years from now, what’s one thing you think most people will be surprised by?

XH: The impact of drone usage to more effectively and efficiently deliver medical solutions to patients and healthcare organizations. It’s going to happen. You will be able to receive prescriptions or submit blood samples via drone delivery without having to leave your home. There are too many billions of dollars being invested in this field for it not to happen.

AA: What kind of support do you see ICMA providing its members with respect to innovation?  What questions should I be discussing with my staff now to prepare for a vastly different way of doing business in the future?

XH: ICMA members should expect a steady dose of honest, strategic, and low-cost innovative frameworks and solutions to empower and better serve their communities. ICMA will provide its members with best-in-class ideation, innovation, business solutions, and strategic perspectives that aim to raise the bar across our entire member universe. Members and staff should look forward to unique innovation-focused roadshows and publications to empower and accompany their own innovation efforts. We will soon announce several new initiatives and programs that will act as innovation incubators and accelerators for our members. I can’t wait!    

AA: Do you believe local government innovation can restore public trust? If so, how?

XH: Absolutely! Local governments can serve as an inspiration to state and federal operators and policy makers. Our local communities are what define and drive America—a country fueled by hard work, passion, commitment, and an endless quest towards excellence. Now how do we repair the public’s trust? By becoming more data-driven and evidence-based, and less political agenda driven. Data does not lie; it simply presents the reality of an event, and it’s up to us to act as mature, innovative, and fair public stewards and tackle those challenges.

This blog post is the first in a new blog series featuring Xavier Hughes and his views on innovation in local government. Want Xavier to provide his views on a specific topic relating to innovation and technology? Add it to our Ask and Answer page

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