Leading the Field: Phoebe Peronto and Rick Klau

A conversation with innovation experts from the California Department of Technology
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For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. In the weeks leading up to Code for America Summit 2022, we’re lifting up the voices of Summit speakers who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. Recently, we spoke with Phoebe Peronto and Rick Klau, the Deputy Chief and Chief Technology Innovation Officers, respectively, for the California Department of Technology. They’ll be leading the breakout session “Attracting and hiring rockstar talent.” 

At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the authors.

What do you think is unique about innovation in the state government space?

Innovation anywhere—be it public or private sector—requires three fundamental things: 1) acknowledgement that the status quo isn’t solving the right problems or serving the right people, 2) the appetite to experiment, and 3) an allowance for failure as a learning opportunity. But, these requirements alone do not innovation make—people do. The concept of digital innovation and disruption in the state government space is no more unique than in the federal space or the private sector. Enabling innovation is challenging for any organization—particularly large organizations, which the State of California happens to be.

When it comes to those fundamental tenets of innovation, many state governments check the boxes: our residents or constituents tell us when things aren’t working or a product is needed; experimentation (largely driven by the adoption of agile development and an abundance of civic tech models) has become more commonplace, as has an openness to view failure as a learning moment to better inform the future.

What has been wildly refreshing within the state and local government ecosystem has been the prevalence of teams all striving to solve similar problems. Unlike in the private sector, where commercial competition would preclude collaboration across companies, the public sector doesn’t face the same barriers to knowledge-sharing. We have this incredible community of brilliant technologists who are also focusing their resources and time on areas we also care about in California. We’ve learned best practices from other states and local governments across a variety of initiatives, which has only sped up our time to delivery by focusing the universe of ways we can solve a problem effectively. More than anything, the broader GovTech community has become our go-to forum for sharing and brainstorming new ideas/approaches—that’s been the most unique characteristic of state government innovation we’ve seen.

Who or what do we need more of in government to build innovative capacity?

We’ll answer this two ways: philosophically, and practically (because, who doesn’t love a philosophical answer to any question).

Philosophically, we need government adoption of an innovation mindset when there isn’t a crisis. While we’ve seen a number of technologists join public service growing year over year (woohoo!), we also often see innovation activated as an answer to a problem or crisis that already happened (or is happening)—enter COVID, Healthcare.gov, etc. Innovative capacity, in addition to talent (which we’ll talk about next), is the recognition that preemptive action to eliminate technical debt, remediate critical systems, modernize architecture, digitize onerous processes, etc. is more important than responding in a time of need. At that point, the damage has been done, and now those technologists entering public service are building solutions to solve yesterday’s problems, instead of dedicating those big brains to building solutions for tomorrow’s problems.

The government needs people who get up every morning with a hunger to build, an incessant curiosity to constantly ask “what if we did it this way?”, and an appreciation for the government apparatus. These people exist all over the government today—we need to find them and empower them. These people exist outside the government, too—we need to better communicate the immense surface area of impact they could have if they joined public service. Without a groundswell of capable, energized, and motivated people willing to take on the challenge of rowing upstream—and who recognize the views are worth it—the government’s ability to build innovative capacity will continue to plateau.

What does it mean to bring your full selves to work in this field?

We always challenge our team to ask: “why?” For both of us, bringing your full self to this work means having the courage and respect to learn from others and collectively challenge the team to think differently. By simply asking why, we’ve learned so much that has measurably impacted our ability to move and operate effectively within state government.

It is not lost on us that being curious is not always welcomed in a government working environment. We can imagine everyone is all too familiar with the answers: “because we’ve always done it this way,” or “this is how it’s always been.” However, we also observed that if you dig a layer deeper, you learn why it is that something has “been how it’s always been,” and that learning can inform how you navigate building or launching a new product in a smarter way.

The theme of Summit this year is “building the path forward together.” What does that mean to you?

Very simply, “building a path forward together” means that no one organization can do it alone. Having critical mass across federal, state, and local governments of technologists, innovators, thinkers, and doers making progress every day (even if incremental) brings us closer to building a government that is digital-first, built for the people, and accessible.

Without that critical mass, the path forward becomes fractured. With collective action, our outcomes will be greater than the sum of our parts.

Can you give us a little preview of what you’ll be talking about in your breakout session?

We sure can! Building innovative capacity within the government is challenging on its own, and, when doing it at scale, can become Mount Everest.

Here at the California Department of Technology, we recognize the value of bringing in exceptional talent, cultivating internal talent, and retaining talent to build that innovative capacity for execution at scale. In late 2021/early 2022, we nearly doubled the size of our team within two months—if anyone in the government has ever tried to hire, you’ll know this was a monumental feat. In our session, we’ll talk about hiring that rockstar talent into digital-first roles, while simultaneously navigating the government hiring processes. Please come join us!

Want to attend Phoebe Peronto and Rick Klau’s breakout session and hear from more speakers like them? Tickets for Code for America Summit 2022, happening May 17–18, are still on sale. Browse the full list of breakout sessions and register for Summit today!

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