As reported in multiple venues, yesterday, Democrat governor Gina Raimondo has hired the state’s first Chief Innovation Officer (CIO). The press release from the governor’s office states, “Raimondo Taps [Richard] Culatta to Make Government Work Better, Faster for Rhode Islanders.” The first innovation of the new office is the hiring of its chief — arguably so innovative as to be unconstitutional.
According to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the governor’s office and the private-nonprofit Rhode Island College Foundation provided to the Ocean State Current and now available on the foundation’s Web page, the official role of the state government is limited to a promise that Rhode Island College (RIC) and the foundation will “partner with the Office of Rhode Island Governor, her excellency the Governor and/or her designee,” and the CIO will “serve under the guidance” of the governor.
With those vague and minimal exceptions, the CIO is explicitly an employee of the foundation. He is paid by the foundation and reports to its board of directors. The MOU makes clear that the foundation is the entity hiring the CIO, and he is “subject to the rules and policies set out by the Rhode Island College Foundation Employee Manual and Organization Bylaws.” RIC supplies the new innovation office with space, IT, and support, but the only enumerated responsibility of the CIO is to be “the primary lead for fundraising philanthropic dollars” to support his office, from which the foundation will take a 1.5% administrative fee.
In short, the CIO works for the private nonprofit organization, and any authority the state has over him appears to be a matter of verbal agreement between “her excellency the governor” and the foundation. Furthermore, the governor’s spokeswoman, Marie Aberger suggested that, “at some point, in the future, there could be state dollars allocated to the office.”
Even as the governor’s press release appears to overstate the state government’s authority over the Office of Innovation, it may understate its role. Beyond fundraising for the foundation, the broad purposes of the Innovation Office are to:
- Develop “collaborations between research institutions, government, and public/private sector entities.”
- Help government become “more agile.”
- Utilize government’s “unique levers to accelerate innovation in the private sector.”
- Guide activities in “K-12 education, STEAM, and research.”
In her press release and public statements, the governor has emphasized only the second of those four purposes, and it’s one that overlaps with other positions that exist within government. This fiscal year, for instance, the Secretary of State’s office hired a new chief innovation officer who, according to spokeswoman Nicole Lagace, is working to improve many of the automated functions of the department, mainly through its Web site and related portals.*
Governor Raimondo considers the statewide CIO’s role substantial enough that she has told journalists that Culatta will be a member of her cabinet. The cabinet of a chief executive of a state or nation is generally understood to consist of his or her primary advisers, typically the heads of official executive departments. According to the Rhode Island Constitution, the governor’s powers of appointment require “the advice and consent of the [state] senate,” generally through public hearings, and the General Assembly is to have the authority to “regulate the compensation of the governor and of all other officers” of the state.
The creation of the new office and the hiring of its chief officer, by contrast, have been conducted without public awareness. Although the college, foundation, and governor’s office signed the MOU on November 30, 2015, an NBC 10 News report in early December was limited to speculation about the role that Culatta would be playing, with the assumption being that the job would be directly under the governor.
Email messages to the governor’s office and the Rhode Island Senate concerning any role the legislature has had in establishing this new office or hiring its chief have received no reply.**
* After publication of this report, Lagace responded to an earlier request for clarification about the position. Before this year, essentially the same role bore the title of Director of IT.
** Shortly after publication, Senate Spokesman Greg Pare responded to The Current’s inquiry as follows: “The Rhode Island College Foundation is outside of state government.”