Govlaunch Podcast

Seattle's CTO on what’s holding innovation back in the public sector and how to overcome it

Episode Summary

Saad Bashir, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle, talks about the obstacles that keep local governments of any size from establishing and building upon a culture of innovation and how you and your team can overcome these challenges too.

Episode Notes

At Govlaunch, we focus a lot on the culture of innovation and how this concept needs to be embraced by all levels of government and across departments in order to drive any real change. We appreciate the work of public sector innovation teams across the world, but have a hard time understanding how systemic innovation can blossom across an organization if left to a single department.

This interview dives more into a recent post by Saad Bashir on what is holding innovation back in the public sector and how Seattle is approaching internal team building and encouraging innovation from the ground up with results-oriented leadership (and some common sense). 

More info: 

Featured government: Seattle, WA

Episode guests: Saad Bashir, Chief Technology Officer

Visit for more stories and examples of local government innovation.

Episode Transcription

Lindsay: (00:05)

Welcome to the Govlaunch podcast. Govlaunch is the Wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast, we're sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch, and your host.

At Govlaunch, we focus a lot on the culture of innovation and how this concept needs to be embraced by all levels of government and across departments in order to drive any real change. We appreciate the work of public sector innovation teams across the world, but have a hard time understanding how systemic innovation can blossom across an organization if left to a single department. I recently ran across a post by Saad Bashir, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle, which I feel sum up the issues and some proposed solutions perfectly. Of course, I had to get him onto the podcast to share with all of you. 

So let’s now turn to Saad to talk more about the obstacles that keep local governments of any size from establishing and building upon a culture of innovation and how you and your team can overcome these challenges too.


Thanks so much for joining me today. Can you quickly introduce yourself and share a bit about your role?

Saad: (01:18)

Hi Lindsay. My name is Saad Bashir. I'm the Chief Technology Officer at the City of Seattle.

Lindsay: (01:24)

And you recently shared a post which essentially calls out the public sector for doing a lot of things wrong when it comes to supporting innovation efforts. Can you break down for me the systemic issues you see?

Saad: (01:37)

Sure. And let me just preface it by saying that I don't think intentionally public sector is trying to get innovation wrong. They are wanting to be as innovative if not even more than the private sector, simply because public sector every year, before COVID, and now in COVID has been struggling with resources, which wants them to do a lot more with a lot less, but as they want to become more innovative, they're making, in my opinion, some systemic issues that they're creating for themselves. And very briefly they are, I've summarized them in five buckets, but the first one being that, uh, many people want to work for governments and in the public sector and governments are good at hiring smart people, but they hire smart people, promising a time of innovation, wants to join the organization and we quickly put them into boxes.

Saad: (02:35)

And we say to them, now you have to follow these rules and this bureaucracy that you're surrounded with, and for me, that converts really smart people over a period of time into walking dead. The other one is governments are very siloed and that is a function of the beast here, because there are so many unique business lines in a public sector. Like for example, a local municipality has to offer that they conduct innovation in pockets. And for me, that is an issue, uh, unless you bring people from a variety of different backgrounds working for the same organization, you really limit the power of the innovation that can take place. And then, uh, one thing that is very popular, not just in government, but also in other large enterprises, is that we call someone mr. or miss innovation. We call the team the innovation team, and then the entire organization is now waiting for that team, for that person to come up with creative ideas on how should we do our work differently. And to me, that's a missed opportunity. It should be spread across the enterprise. And then we in government one to be consistent in terms of how we offer services. And then often get frightened that innovation is going to bring about change, which may affect our services. And so that is another one. And the last one is that we feel that the answer for innovation, creative ideas lies outside the organization. And I think that's a fundamental mistake. We often underestimate the power of our own talent versus strictly relying upon the external stakeholders.

Lindsay: (04:24)

Well, what's so great about your posts is that these are things that a lot of folks in local government that we've talked to have shared with us in one way or another. You've done a really great job of summarizing the issues all in one place and giving some actionable ideas for how to really upset the status quo and overcome some of this. Can you share your thoughts on what needs to change to better support innovation from the ground up?

Saad: (04:48)

Sure. Uh, for each one of them, there are probably multiple tactics. And just because, uh, I had to write something, keeping in mind that people around me have such a short attention span. I was very brief in some of the ideas that one can use to resolve each of those five issues, but I will very quickly talk about some of them. One is, and this is a pretty common one that we should create some safe spaces for talent, uh, create some parameters, cost parameters, what type of risk appetite we can take and then let them loose. It's okay for them to make a few mistakes and consider that as a lab environment. And we know that in a lab, some experiments don't work. So that type of space really helps. The other one is cross-functional teams. It is super important that we just don't get one group of people who have the same type of day job, uh, give them that safe space and expect them to innovate.

Saad: (05:47)

They'll often just innovate in a very incremental fashion and so you need people who will challenge each other from different teams. So that is important. The next one is stop expecting from one person and one team, as I mentioned earlier, the innovation bench strength, but make it part of the core competency of everybody who works in the organization. And regardless of where they work, what title they have, how long they have been in organization. To me, all of those are just artificial ways in which we put people in different buckets and you need to make it available to everybody in the organization. The other way to incent innovation is to make it incremental, is to not expect that one idea is going to completely flip the organization, but it's okay if it's going to be a hundred steps versus one big step. So that's important. And the last one is invite outside organizations to participate in creating solutions around innovation for you, but make sure that your own talent is at the front of it. And to me, of all of these ideas, this one really is key is to make sure that you put all of your eggs in your talent basket.

Lindsay: (07:11)

As a public sector leader, what have you done specifically in Seattle to overcome some of these systemic obstacles?

Saad: (07:19)

Right. And so I would say that all of these things that I wrote in the post and I've talked about today are all based on practical experiences. They're not out of a textbook. So for example, I have purposely made it clear that my own folks on my team are going to lead innovation. So whatever modernization activity that might be taking place around digital transformation, it's my own Seattle IT key folks who are in front of it. And mind you, there is a lot of private sector training and contribution behind them. So that's one. Not too long ago, I also started this concept of a digital tiger team, which is really that cross-functional group of people who come together. It's almost like a sabbatical, but while you're still in that same organization, so you have a day job, but now you have this itch, you have learned a few skills you want to contribute in a different way. Idea is that we are plucking those people from different parts of the organization, putting them into a digital tiger team. They do what they need to do for a few months, and then they go back to their day job. If that is what makes sense. You know, I would say that co-solutioning with our clients has been really key, uh, not just preparing something behind the scenes and then doing a bigger reveal, but doing it in a way that's very iterative with our, uh, with our client departments that has been really key. So those are some of many small tactics that I've tried to follow to encourage innovation

Lindsay: (08:56)

Well, and it's encouraging, I think for the smaller governments listening in, that you were able to make such a large cultural shift in a huge city like Seattle, um, that it's possible for especially for smaller to medium sized cities. Um, there is a very large talent pool, even in small government. Um, and this concept of tiger teams that you said, bringing people with different skill sets together to kind of think outside the box and innovate, um, is something that really any government can try just based off the siloed structure of government.

Saad: (09:31)

And maybe I'll just add a couple of other points on that one. Uh, one thing that holds back innovation, I find large orgs, smaller organizations is that the leaders who are supposed to make these big decisions, they're not comfortable with the new lingo. And they're often a little bit embarrassed to admit it. They're too busy to go read up a document. So when they hear things like cloud things like AI or machine learning, they feel like, you know what, I'm going to create a bureaucratic process around me so that nobody will come and touch me on this topic. And I think if you're somebody who is wanting to bring about innovative change in your organization, one of the things that you can do is provide awareness opportunities for the leaders in the organization without any shame. To that point, I've been here for a couple of years now in Seattle. Last year and then just this last month, I was able to hold, um, annual learning conferences that were open to thousands of people who were able to participate. And a big part of that was to make awareness and not something to be embarrassed about, but it's okay to come in and pick up a new skills every now and again.

Lindsay: (10:46)

Well, and I love that. And it's something we've really focused on on gov launch too, is breaking down those barriers. And, you know, big words are thrown around IOT and sensors and open data platforms. All of that, people don't even know where to begin. So really breaking it down and, um, into simple steps on how to get from point a to point B, um, in your journey to be a smart city. Last time we spoke, he brought up an interesting point around the issue on conferences and the message that public servants are getting, um, that at a lot of these very vendor driven events. Can you break that idea down for me a bit more?

Saad: (11:27)

Sure. Um, you know, every day, almost I get an invitation of some event that is taking place and now, because everything is virtual, I'm no longer just getting the invitations to events happening in my geography, but people from Asia and Australia. And when you look at the agenda, when you look at the topics they're so similar, they’re tired conversations. People behind these conferences have a very noble idea. They want to make public sector be better, but the way I think they're going around them is doing it in a very traditional orthodox way. So that is, I think what I refer to when we last spoke is I try to stay away from traditional looking conferences. Also I found in the public sector that because we don't have money to send everybody on a $5,000 conference pre-COVID, the best thing is not to send anybody so that nobody complaints. Everybody's treated equal. You know a way to go around that is to adopt some more innovative ways around training.

Saad: (12:37)

Last year in Seattle, we were able to put together a training toolkit. And one of the big items on that training toolkit was online interactive training, and you've got no shortage of vendors. One of the ones that I'm a big fan of is Pluralsight. Um, but there are many others as well. We have created lots of informal training opportunities for staff like mentorship and job shadowing. Um, we also have, uh, there's one thing that interesting that we have been able to do here that I think is worth calling out. Uh, I've got a team of about 70, 80 leaders in my area that are responsible for managing different teams and functions. Uh, and so we’ve labeled them as leadership capital, and we have given them a mandate to take the challenge and teach each other what everybody knows about leadership. And so every month, for example, we've got leadership capital sessions where a couple of leaders would have planned to talk about, let's say decision-making, or let's talk about how do we do analysis. And there's a lot of that type of internal cross-pollination of ideas taking place, which I'm finding is not just good for learning, but also it creates a good networking opportunity for people within the organization.

Lindsay: (13:59)

Well, I love your focus on training and really empowering the leaders within local government. And so many of the conferences, like you said, are very technology driven, and I think it's very important and you make this point too, that innovation doesn't require technology all the time. And that's it, it's really easy to walk away from a conference thinking that that's the case, um, just based off how they're structured. So back to the leadership perspective, um, there are a lot of people looking to build leadership careers in government. Are there any insights you can share with aspiring public officials who are working toward this journey?

Saad: (14:37)

Sure. And I might get into trouble by maybe sharing my thoughts so publicly, but I would say that even before somebody comes into the public sector, you have to really question whether you are ready for the kind of temperament that a public service demands from a long time serving public sector employee. So my suggestion is, especially the people who are just coming out of school, who want to change the world. I say to them, listen, why don't you first get your private sector fix, work there for a few years, really make sure that it's not the money that turns you on, and then maybe make that switch to the public sector. Uh, so that's just one general advice. I think if you are in the public sector and you're looking to establish yourself as a leader, one of the things that you want to definitely avoid is not being that person who got hired to do a job X and 10 years later, you are so good at job X that your organization doesn't want to move you anymore, because this is exactly what they want you to do for the next 20 years.

Saad: (15:50)

And I would say that just for that reason, you want to move around. It's okay if you, you know, prepare yourself as a planner when you were back in university and you did that in a public agency. But if you get an opportunity to let's say, work in finance and HR, in any other function of the organization, I would say, um, take those opportunities. That's one number two for me, at least I found is to recruit people non-stop as my mentors, uh, there are probably 50 mentors around me that don't even know that they're giving me that free service. And so I'm really selfish about taking all the good ideas around me, from leaders, both in my own organization and outside. So that's, that's really important. I would say, uh, you want to, uh, raise your hand as often as you can.

Saad: (16:43)

There is no shortage. I find, I have found an event. People are talking about great ideas in the meeting room, and then when the time comes for somebody to take the action of, who's actually moving it forward, this pin drop silence, because everybody has a day job and they're so busy and they have a vacation coming up or whatever. I would say that if you're really serious to be a leader, you need to be comfortable to raising your hand. Even then, sometimes you have to think on the fly. You're not exactly sure if you're going to be able to do that job, uh, you have to be confident enough that you will find the right team around you. So that's a, that's super important. I mean, I could go on and on of all the things that one needs to do, I found to continue to climb up the leadership pole. But the last thing I would say is that you need to have a thick skin. There's a Chinese proverb, which says the tallest tree in the forest is the first one to fall. And so you just need to be okay with getting slapped around almost on a daily basis, if you're a public sector leader, because somewhere in your organization, something is not going right. And, but that's just the nature of the business.

Lindsay: (17:56)

In another article of yours, you define the term public sector syndrome. Can you explain what this is and how you avoid falling victim to this after a tenure in public service?

Saad: (18:07)

Right? And so actually it's public sector cynicism syndrome, PSCS, and it's something I thought about maybe six months after my first public sector job, which was several years ago. And I noticed something strange happening with me. I started noticing that I was a little bit less positive about life. I was a little bit more pessimistic about what was happening about myself and about the world. And this was a big departure from the kind of person that I am in my personal life, which is, you know, very optimistic about the future. And I started questioning why that was the case and the conclusion over the years that I have come to is that it's because of the nature of a large enterprise, a large bureaucracy, which exists both in public and private sectors, that it makes a person, especially like me a little bit confined that I have to follow all of these rules to exercise, whatever I want to do in my day job.

Saad: (19:12)

And I think every one of us in any organization wants to have a level of freedom. We want empowerment and public sectors, especially public sector, the processes they take away, some of that empowerment. So the, the way I've been able to address that is what I call is that is bringing back the day one feeling. So, I mean, I don't drive anymore, but I remember back in my previous public sector role in Canada, every time I would lock my car up in the parking lot, and I would start walking towards the building, I would impose on myself, the day one attitude. And Lindsay, if you remember your day one in any job, you probably wore the best outfit. You had the biggest smile on your face. You wanted to be friends with everybody. You wanted everybody to like you. And that is the kind of spirit that I like to bring into myself every day. It's really hard in the COVID world now, because you have to do it virtually, especially when you're not wearing a nice suit and tie, which I sort of got used to wearing. But I think that is the kind of temperament, uh, mindset that you have to bring to your job every day.

Lindsay: (20:24)

Oh yeah. And I would agree, um, this concept of you have to, um, you have to have something that gets you out of bed in the morning and you certainly do. A lot of great concepts to share that. Of course you've been able to put into action in Seattle. Can you share with us about one or two recent projects you're particularly proud of in the city which you feel highlight, um, some of the, and organizational changes you've been focused on?

Saad: (20:51)

Wow. Um, what can I say? You know, I would say that, I'll highlight the learning conference as an excuse to talk about the culture behind it. Um, when I first started, one of the first meetings I had was around talent development and I had heard so many complaints about the organization doesn't take our career development seriously. So I asked everyone who had an interest in this to come around and I said, I can't do it myself. And I don't have millions of dollars to spend on talent development. So what started from that was a talent sounding board, a CTO talent sounding board. About 50 people signed up right away. And then that led to a staff driven exercise, where people who had really busy day jobs, and they came together to create a talent development toolkit. They created programs from scratch without any real funding behind them.

Saad: (21:55)

They were motivated enough that in our career opportunities, we're going to take control of it ourselves. We're not going to wait for the organization to come up with the money. And so look of all of that effort came things like the learning conference, which to me is the one that we did last year. You know, it's comparable to a learning event that a private sector, multinational company would put together for their own employees, with speakers from the top firms around the world who came and spoke with us and so much great energy that came out of it. To me, that was a, a bit of a light bulb moment for the organization that we actually can do all of the things that we read about happening in the Seattle region, because Seattle is so famous for so many smart companies around us.

Saad: (22:48)

So I could say that will be one, I'd say the other one is around, and we’re still at the cusp, at the beginning of it, but it's around automation. There has been this feeling that automation is going to drive people out of their day job. And I think still, maybe a lot of people think like that for us, COVID has been a blessing in disguise, especially on this front, we've been able to do so much of our digitization of our workflows across the organization. And that has, I think also opened up a lot of eyes around us that there's a different way to do things. So that's been a, that's been a good one.

Lindsay: (23:32)

Is there any discussion of making the learning conference available outside of the city of Seattle as a resource to other local governments?

Saad: (23:39)

You know, I've got so many people asking me the same thing. Um, this year, for example, I'm trying to remember if it was this year, I believe so. We were able to open it up to some of the college students in Seattle. And so that was something new it exactly. And it doesn't take any thing away from the actual session. So I have wondered why wouldn't Seattle not open it up to all of the regional municipalities perhaps, and why not just keep it to that. If the tools allow 10,000 people to join in and listen to somebody, then maybe we should open that up to 10,000 people. So it's something that I am looking to do. Definitely we'll keep expanding it as we, as we move forward. 

Lindsay: (24:31)

That’s great. As you know, failure is a big part of innovation and being able to iterate quickly and move on to the next project, if something doesn't quite work out as planned, to help avoid the same mistake elsewhere. I think our listeners would be curious to know what's something you've tried that didn't work?

Saad: (24:49)

Right. So, um, one of the things that I frequently do is I keep taking risks on people around me. And people whisper in my ears that are you really sure such and such person did this such and such thing in that meeting or failed on that project. And for me, my trust bank with anybody that I'm dealing with starts at a hundred percent, you have to do something for that trust to come down. So I frequently take chances on people around me for, especially for the new things that I am looking to pursue. And so every time I do that, I know that I'm going to fail maybe 20, 30% of the time. I know that, but people around me don't know that that is what I am, that's the risk I'm taking. So every time those two or three people out of 10, don't do what I had promised people around me that they were going to do.

Saad: (25:52)

I sort of get in trouble. And people say, but you know, then people forget that what about the other seven people that we gave them this additional challenge, and they were able to rise to that occasion. So you just have to keep reminding people that this is about developing our talent. Uh, and so I wouldn't take names or talk about projects specifically. I'm trying to think if there's any, something from a previous workplace that I could maybe talk about where, um, there, there was some, yeah, but I would say that would be the general theme and that is a frequent failure in my world that I'm willing to live with.

Lindsay: (26:33)

Well, changing gears a little, um, do you have time for a few more quick general questions? 


Go ahead.


Sure. Um, coming from a large city like Seattle, what advice you share with others and local government you feel would resonate with even the smallest city or town?

Saad: (26:49)

Right? One of the things is that especially smaller organizations feel that they cannot be best in class because they're competing with other bigger organizations who have bigger budgets and more resources. And I think that's a flawed assumption for me, best in class is a phrase that I use frequently in this job, in my previous roles. And that is all about how do we do what we do the best way possible, but it doesn't have to be in terms of magnitude the biggest thing. So how do we deal with our people? How do we deal with our budgets, how we deal with our customer service and any other aspect of our organization. So I think people should aspire to be best in class. It doesn't matter if you're a municipality of a hundred thousand people, bigger organizations, such as Seattle, they face as a curse is that we are very siloed.

Saad: (27:49)

We have such complex business lines, large enough business lines that in another world, they could be independent standalone organizations. And I would say it's smaller organizations don't have that same challenge, and you should take advantage of it, that you can behave like one organization, one team, a lot more than some of the larger ones. I would say the third one is, um, we often feel that I'm taking somebody else's good idea is something that might be embarrassing, that may be frowned upon. I'm the first person who very actively steals other people's ideas. And I make them my own for my context in the organization. And I feel no shame in that. I think, uh, that helps the pace of how we can do our jobs. That's important. Yeah. I would say maybe, maybe those three would be, would be a start.

Lindsay: (28:51)

Yeah. Well, I love your concept of stealing ideas. I mean, this is, this is the whole crux of why we built Govlaunch where people could come in, share their projects. And if you need to steal an idea, come search a keyword and search for 3000 innovation projects. So a lot of ideas to steal on Govlaunch.

Saad: (29:09)

You know, I'm a frequent visitor to that information bank as well. And, uh, again, like I said earlier, that, uh, anytime I see anything that I can morph into something that would work in my context, I don't hesitate.

Lindsay: (29:23)

Fantastic. Well, what is something that excites you about the future of Seattle or more generally the public sector?

Saad: (29:31)

Um, you know, uh, Seattle is such a fascinating place. You have one picture, uh, that you get by reading a, of a place. And then once you go there for a visit or to live there, your eyes open because there is so much going on. And so, you know, one thing that I feel is going for Seattle is just the energy here. I live downtown Seattle, and there is no escaping that energy. And I'm talking about an energy with that has a lot of optimism behind it because they can be bad energy as well. So I find that to be very addictive. It's very hard to escape it if you are bumping into people all across the city, um, I would say that, I'm finding, and this is something that was a bit of a revelation for me, that Seattle is on the forefront of a lot of progressive thinking that many others around the world are going to follow.

Saad: (30:31)

Um, and so I find that to be very inspiring. Now it's very messy because people may all want to be progressive, but they may have like 10 different ways in how we can get there. So, you know, by no means is it's a very clean cut business, but, uh, I find that to be quite, quite inspiring in terms of the public sector, I would find that more and more the connection between the local governments and the people that they serve is getting stronger and stronger. I think this is maybe the best time to be in local government because you can actually take a lot of the ideas that are being talked about and put them into action. I make fun of my friends in the federal level because they talk at a very high level. They write papers, nobody reads them. And so I make fun of them. And, you know, they may be secretly agree even that they don't get that same level of job satisfaction that I think somebody who's on the ground is able to get from their job. So, uh, I think, uh, especially for local governments, the future is really positive.

Lindsay: (31:40)

Yeah. We, I mean, we feel at Govlaunch that municipal government and local government has the ability to really impact our daily lives more so than any other form of government. So we're really passionate about what we're doing. Obviously we're similarly trying to break down some of these innovation barriers and help encourage local governments of all sizes to take ownership of their innovation journey. We really appreciate the insights you've shared today and really your push in Seattle and beyond for systemic change across local government and leadership really stepping up and the thoughts you shared today. So we love what you're doing and keep up the exciting work. And thank you so much again for being here.

Saad: (32:21)

Thank you so much, Lindsay. It was a pleasure.

Lindsay: (32:28)

With so many local governments globally, far smaller than the city of Seattle. We focused a lot today on the importance of leadership and advice, relatable and actionable for local governments of size. 

Saad shares some important advice on how to remain positive and how to most effectively bring teams together to promote innovative ideas. Innovation cannot come solely from the top. Likewise innovation cannot flourish without the support coming from the top. And after looking into thousands of the innovation projects shared on Govlaunch, we've learned that when unconventional teams come together to leverage different strengths, rely a little less on technology to solve a problem, and take a few risks, we see some of the most impressive innovation.

I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, and this podcast was produced by Govlaunch, the Wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.