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New Innovation Officer Leads Technology Initiative at World Bank

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, July 10 2013

Chris Vein (Flickr/USDAgov)

As their Chief Innovation Officer, Chris Vein is shepherding the World Bank into the digital age.

Vein joined the organization last December to lead their technology strategy, filling an entirely new position at the Bank. Vein's background is political: most recently he worked as a chief technologist for the White House and before that as San Francisco's first CIO, but long before that he worked for presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

That is to say, the World Bank did not hire a young scamp to lead them into the future, but rather someone with extensive experience with technology.

In an interview with the New Zealand news outlet Interest.com.nz last month, Vein actually downplays the role of innovation in his work.

“Innovation is the latest buzzword. . .we overuse it, I think,” said Vein. The real challenge is “simply taking advantage of all the changes that have taken place and just applying them and thinking through slightly differently.” He then adds, “Maybe that is innovation.”

Vein thinks that it is more likely, with technology, for the World Bank to have meaningful outcomes. He also thinks the poverty problem is a solvable one.

An important factor will now be something called beneficiary feedback, which will now be part of every World Bank loan.

Oftentimes the criticism of large institutions or banks is that they don't really understand what's happening in the field. And what technology is enabling the users of our loans, quite frankly, to say is: Wait a minute the government was borrowing money to do this, we're not seeing that benefit, we're not seeing that actually happening. Where is the feedback of the beneficiary to you, the government, or you, the World Bank, for what you're loaning?

From now on the World Bank will need to get the data-based beneficiary feedback back from the country, back from the targeted group, before making additional installments of a loan. This will, Vein says, hold both the government and the World Bank accountable for the money being spent.

Although this sounds potentially complicated, it could actually speed up the process of assessing and granting loans. “The Bank can take up to seven years to do a loan,” Vein said at The Guardian's Activate London: 2013 conference. “It takes that long to go through the various processes to mitigate risks.”

The point of his Activate talk was to explain what development should look like in the technological age. His points, outlined by The Next Web, are not innovative. By now, suggestions like open, data-driven, scalable and sustainable, are now standard.

Vein was even heckled on Twitter for being bland:

It's implementing those ideals at an organization as large and influential as the World Bank that is the real challenge.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.