The same forces of digital transformation driving federal agencies to overhaul their IT systems, move to the cloud, beef up their cyber defenses and find ways to do more with less funding are pushing state and local governments into action.

“We are going through a pretty large transformation of our own,” Karen Jackson, Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia, told the audience at the Public Sector Innovation Summit in May. “We’ve had a contract with Northrop Grumman since 2006, but everything is completely different now … the demands of the citizens have changed. [This] is the first time in 13 years we’ve had the opportunity to rewrite our future.”

The Montgomery County, Md., government has taken a different, smaller-scale approach that allows room for experimentation, said Dan Hoffman, the county’s Chief Innovation Officer. “The innovation program in Montgomery County is kind of a public sector R&D lab,” he said.

Hoffman called it the county “sandbox, a literal place where we can pilot prototypes.” The purpose of the program is to bring together talent and expertise from public sector agencies, industries and universities to incubate and accelerate the development and adoption of emerging technologies.

“It not only gives us an opportunity to do bakeoffs with various vendors, they get hands-on experiences so they can make it better,” he said.

Jackson and Hoffman agreed that the public sector is completely different than the private sector, in mission and in constraints.

“The policy environment is going to be one of the hardest challenges to overcome,” Jackson said. “There are multitudes of stakeholders – executive branch agencies, citizens, legislators.”

For example, the legislative and policy framework for privacy considerations go all the way back to the 1930s, she said. “When you start to go back and have to change those policy considerations … the education process [for legislators] is going to be quite lengthy.”

“In the end, it’s quality of life, saving people’s lives, meeting [the mission],” Hoffman said. He cited the effort to extend broadband access to citizens.

“It’s putting broadband into homes that didn’t have it before, and creating the policies that facilitate that. You take on the cost, but also the policy complications of new technology,” he said. “It’s not just chasing the new shiny thing but how it’s going to affect your residents.”