Transformation in Action: Illinois’ Innovation Incubators
An Insight from the 2017 Public Sector for the Future Summit
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In March 2015 when Hardik Bhatt became the Chief Information Officer for the State of Illinois, he faced significant challenges.7 The state was spending approximately $1 billion annually on Information Technology (IT), yet it ranked in the bottom quartile nationally among state information technology departments. This spending was especially concerning because Illinois had been slow to recover from the Great Recession; in fact, it was one of the few states in the country experiencing population outflow. Finally, there was a sense of urgency. Bhatt estimated that Illinois’ IT system was 45 years behind where it should have been, but with the next gubernatorial election approaching in November 2018, he was only guaranteed a narrow window to pursue reform. Bhatt summarized, “We had to do an overall transformation of 45 years in four years.”

Bhatt—who had previously served as Cisco’s Internet of Everything expert for local government—and Governor Bruce Rauner—who had founded and led a private equity firm before running for governor in 2014—set out to reposition Illinois’ IT setup to thrive in the 21st century.8 The effort, as Bhatt explained, revolved around a critical, complex question: “How do we enable the redesign and restructuring of government operations using data and evidence to drive more efficient, effective, and customer-focused service delivery?”

Bhatt envisioned IT transformation that would eventually position the state to thrive in the digital economy, a critical priority because of the job losses projected to result from automation. Nonetheless, he recognized that to position the state to pursue far-reaching reform, he first needed to establish a foundation. Thus, in his first ten months, Bhatt prioritized consolidating Illinois’ IT infrastructure—which had previously consisted of myriad siloed systems scattered across different agencies—in a newly created Department of Innovation & Technology. What’s more, Bhatt, who was named the Secretary-designate of that agency (and therefore joined the governor’s cabinet), designed the organization like a business.9 This included establishing key performance indicators for agency functions, clustering the state’s agencies into seven verticals determined by focus area (e.g., Health and Human Services, Public Safety, and Regulatory), and creating quarterly business reviews.

Having established the Department of Innovation & Technology, Bhatt hoped to build on this initial reform by pursuing a more ambitious effort to leverage data, behavioral economics, and design thinking to improve customer service and citizen outcomes. “All of this means nothing,” Bhatt emphasized, “if you’re not thinking about how do we transform the government to be a digital government? How do we use technology so that we can improve customer service and improve employee efficiency?”

“We had to do an overall transformation of 45 years in four years."

Hardik Bhatt
Chief Digital Officer and Acting Secretary, Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology

Thus, Bhatt began pursuing other techniques to transform Illinois’ approach to IT. One was nearly quintupling the state’s mobile applications, an effort to create a more customer-centric environment. Another top priority was leveraging data to understand and solve customer problems and enhance the customer experience. As Bhatt explained, this reflected his belief that “a data-driven government is at the center of public policy and service delivery.”

Bhatt initially chose to focus data-driven reform on health and human services, which accounts for the majority of state spending and therefore was the area where he and his colleagues could generate the most “bang for [their] buck.” Specifically, in summer 2015, the state convened leaders from all nine health and human services-related agencies as well as representatives of the governor’s office and the budget office. Bhatt attended the meeting and paid careful heed to the problems that health and human services leaders identified with the existing systems; he also collaborated with them to develop a list of 150 questions that they hoped to answer, many of which revolved around data.

Bhatt then worked with state leaders to create an Innovation Incubator (i2) that would develop the infrastructure to help answer the questions they had posed, resolve challenges, and enhance citizen experiences and outcomes. Unlike the existing environment, which involved dozens of siloed systems for capturing data, i2 would establish a unified digital services platform that leveraged interoperable processes, systems, people, and data. This would make it easier for state officials to develop a 360-degree view of their clients, leverage predictive processes and prescriptive analyses to inform policymaking, and optimize business practices to maximize efficiency. With this objective in mind, Bhatt worked with health and human services officials to create a governance structure and charter for i2 and execute an enterprise memorandum of understanding (EMOU) for data sharing. Critically, the EMOU altered the default setting in health and human services agencies in favor of data sharing. Bhatt elaborated, “The previous answer was, ‘No, we’re not going to share the data, and don’t ask us why.’ Now, we have agencies trying to figure out…why they should share the data.”

i2 has made an enormous impact. A case in point is that it has positioned the state to create a 360-degree view of children in the foster care system; this has dramatically decreased the amount of time investigators spend gathering data. Buoyed by the success of this program, the state recently received over $50 million from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to scale the i2 initiative. What’s more, the state has partnered with the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology to develop a peer-to-peer platform that allows families in the foster care system to share resources. Most importantly, the progress in health and human services has contributed to a broader shift in norms in other realms, including public safety, which has begun to create its own i2.

A little over two years into his journey, Bhatt still sees room for progress. For example, he would like to see the culture surrounding data sharing begin to spread to the lower levels of agencies. Nonetheless, in a narrow window he has consolidated Illinois’ IT systems, moved Illinois from the bottom fourth to the top third of state IT rankings, and introduced and secured funding for a template that has begun to transform the state’s approach to data.

More broadly, he is demonstrating how shifting social norms and default settings for data sharing, leveraging design thinking, and creating a sense of urgency can jumpstart a stagnant environment.

“How do we enable the redesign and restructuring of government operations using data and evidence to drive more efficient, effective, and customer-focused service delivery?”

Hardik Bhatt
Chief Digital Officer and Acting Secretary, Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology


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