Bryan Sivak, chief innovation officer for Maryland, joined the state in 2011 after directing technology for the District of Columbia. StateTech spoke with Sivak about his background, leadership style and the potential of open data.
STATETECH: Tell me about your vendor background.
SIVAK: I started an enterprise software company in 1997. We created the world’s first natural-language search engine. You could actually ask questions like you would ask another human being and get an answer that was not necessarily just an excerpt from a web page, but also maybe some photographs or maps or other things that helped to describe a response to the question.
STATETECH: What prompted you to move into government?
SIVAK: I had always been interested in public service. When Obama won the election in 2008, I was pretty motivated, like a lot of others, to try to change the way things work. Some friends of mine happened to know some people who work in government who knew a position was coming open and suggested to the people who were hiring that they talk to me. One thing led to another and I became the CTO in D.C.
It was a random set of occurrences. I didn’t really set out to change jobs. I was living in London at the time and had no specific desire to move back to the states. But it was an interesting opportunity to work for a very forward-thinking mayor.
I went to work in D.C., and it was a phenomenal experience. I discovered that people in the public sector for the most part are some of the best people that I have ever worked with. They are some of the most dedicated and intelligent people out there. If they are given the opportunity to succeed and to do new and interesting things, they can make huge, huge changes.
STATETECH: In terms of leadership, how do you motivate people and incentivize them?
SIVAK: I don’t believe financial incentives really motivate people. Believe me, I get in lots of arguments with people about this. I think that real motivation comes from knowing that you individually had an impact on fundamentally changing something.
In government, we have a unique mechanism for that because we really are serving a higher purpose and are theoretically focusing on the public good. The more that we can do to allow people to see how their individual efforts are impacting these larger motivations, that’s the real motivator.
STATETECH: We’ve spoken before about results-only work environments. So how is Gov. O’Malley going to measure your delivery?
SIVAK: The governor has 15 goals that he set up when he first started as governor of Maryland. As long as I can show him and others that I am helping him make progress on those 15 goals — whether it's directly accelerating achievement of those goals based on metrics or by building some foundational effort that is required to move the ball forward — then all is well and good.
For example, we’re building out an open-data platform that’s going to be available online. It will contain as many different datasets as we can find. It’s also going to be a mechanism for us to do performance management with states in a much more efficient way — to help us tell the stories of what we are actually doing with data. That’s a good example of something that’s not necessarily specific to a goal, but foundational to every goal.