Alaska Chief Information Officer Bill Vajda recently toured his state’s vast frontier to inspect the results of a $250 million rural broadband project . Back in Juneau, though, there’s a lot more going on as the state modernizes its government operations and connects its furthest-flung residents.
There’s a new person executing those ambitions: Jason Schneider, who started in May as Alaska’s first-ever chief innovation officer. It’s a role whose parameters are still being defined — “I’ve been drinking from the firehose since I’ve started,” Schneider told StateScoop — but one aimed at helping Alaskans interact with their government.
Schneider described his skill set as “being able to communicate and synthesize,” which he said he’s done in roles ranging from coffee-shop manager to elected office-holder in a small Midwestern town.
“To me, innovation is about being able to listen to and hear the ideas of all stakeholders to create a better customer experience,” he said.
In his new job, that’ll mean working on a centralization of IT processes that Vajda says is 30 years in the making, not just for the benefit of state agencies, but for its sparse — albeit growing — population.
“We’re dealing with adults who are voting for the first time who have no knowledge of the 20th century,” Vajda said. “It’s time to look at how we’re doing tings. Make sure we keep pace with the world and how technology is evolving and bring that into our organization.”
How Schneider executes that mission is still undefined, but he said it’ll involve a lot of meetings with Alaska’s diverse communities, though he’s got a few ideas already about what might improve the state. “I’m looking at different types of online service delivery,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of having as much data as possible available to the public. Anything we can do to help that.”
Schneider, 39, took the job following a three-year stint running the local chamber of commerce in Marquette, Michigan, where he lived for most of the past 20 years since attending Northern Michigan University. But while he spent two decades on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Schneider, by his own admission, has had a bit of an itinerant life. He grew up outside Fresno, California, living in communities with large Hispanic and Hmong populations. And between different stints in Marquette, Schneider spent two-and-a-half years in the Peace Corps in the Pacific island nation of Tonga.
Those places, he said, were good preparation for a place like Alaska and its indigenous population. “A lot of those remote communities, a lot of them are very traditional cultures,” Schneider said. “There’s a lot to still learn about, but I feel a huge draw to public service, so I always tried to communicate that.”
After his Peace Corps stint, Schneider returned to Marquette to found an e-commerce business. He was elected to the city’s board of commissioners in 2010. He also managed a winning state House of Representatives campaign in 2012. And while Alaska is one of the smallest states by population, its vastness represents a big step up for Schneider.
“I’ve had a fundamental belief in changing the world for the better, and this was an opportunity for me to take that from a community of 40,000 to an entire state if I do my job well,” he said.
At the very least, it’ll allow him to indulge in his love of the outdoors. “Especially the surfing,” Schneider said. “I’m a Lake Superior surfer, and I’m excited to surf in warmer water.”