Move over Mr. Mayor, cities are getting chief innovation officers

May 22, 2013, 11:40 AM UTC


Coming to a City Hall near you. Maybe.

City governments aren’t exactly known for innovation. “Get in line,” “fill out this form” and “you need a permit” are the bureaucracy’s invariable responses to virtually any question. Municipal technology is also often mired in the past: paper files, outdated computer systems and an aversion to sharing data with businesses that want to use it are common.

Hoping to infuse municipal government with a start-up attitude, a small but growing number of cities are adding a new position to their administrative ranks: chief innovation officer. The goal is to make cities more cutting-edge by hiring someone to find and implement new technologies that may oil the creaky wheels of local governance. “It raises the bar, and sets expectations at a slightly higher level,” says Lea Deesing, chief innovation officer for Riverside, Calif., 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, Kansas City added a chief innovation officer, joining other major cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia. Smaller cities, including San Leandro, Calif. and Davis, Calif., have also latched onto the idea.

By creating chief innovation officer jobs, cities are borrowing an idea from big business. Over the past decade, a number of prominent companies like Dell (DELL), Citi (CIT) and Coca-Cola have hired chief innovation officers to help keep them a step ahead of their competitors. Their results are debatable, however, because corporate chief innovation officers often lack budgets, staff and authority. But those criticisms haven’t stopped cities from jumping on the bandwagon.

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Ashley Hand, who started as Kansas City’s first chief innovation officer three months ago, explained her role as fostering a culture of innovation. Identifying the city’s future technology needs and then acting as a “facilitator” to make them reality is part of the job. Hand’s background is anything but technology. She’s an architect by training who has worked in marketing and as a management consultant.

How does Kansas City rate in terms of tech? “We do some things extremely well,” Hand said. “Some things, we don’t do as well.”

Making more city data available to businesses that want to use it is one of her goals. In fact, cities across the country are pushing similar projects, known in technology circles as “open government.” Governments are huge repositories of mapping and public transportation information, for example. But they generally don’t do a good job of sharing it with the public or businesses that want to refashion it into an app or web site.

Other ideas on Hand’s to-do list include finding a better way track the cost of providing certain city services, encouraging civic engagement and improving digital literacy in the community. Another is to figure out how Google Fiber, an initiative by Google (GOOG) to wire the city with high-speed Internet, can help businesses and provide economic development.

Hand, however, is just one employee. She has no staff and no direct authority over the city’s dozens of departments. Doing her job requires a lot of collaboration and persuasion. Officially, she works for the mayor’s office, although she also works closely with the city manager.

The love affair with chief innovation officers in government isn’t just limited to cities. The positions are starting to spring up across officialdom. Chicago Public Schools, Montgomery County, MD and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have all hired chief innovation officers in the past year. Titles can vary slightly, however, and in some cases they are twinned with additional responsibilities like managing technology infrastructure.

Cities are, of course, big users of technology. Emergency services, utilities, public transportation, city clerk offices and municipal motor pools can depend heavily on software, location data and servers. Adding to the complexity is the spread of mobile devices and the increasing demand for public employees to do their jobs outside the office. Residents also increasingly expect to be able to submit paperwork and get basic civic information using a computer or their smartphones.

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Cities have long relied on chief information or chief technology officers to meet that challenge. In many cases, however, they’ve struggled to do so while simultaneously trying to maintain existing tech infrastructure. That’s where chief innovation officers come in. They’re supposed to be more forward thinking while their counterparts – the chief innovation and chief technology officers – oversee more of the day-to-day operations. “By separating the positions out, there’s a better opportunity to focus,” Deesing, from Riverside, says.

The ultimate goal for Deesing, who is part of the city’s economic development office, is to make Riverside a better place to live and work. She’s only been on the job for a month, so it too early to point to anything she’s shepherded through from start to finish. But she did speak highly of the city’s tech credentials.

A new mobile app lets city workers in the field open and close work orders for graffiti removal. The app lets workers photograph the graffiti and, later, potentially recognize patterns to help identify those responsible. Another project lets residents and engineers submit building plans online as part of the permitting process.

Riverside, a city of just over 300,000 residents, has around 225 technology projects at any one time. Of those, 25 are placed on a priority list, which is adjusted weekly. Like with virtually all cities, there’s limited money and manpower to contend with. Innovation must be weighed against a range of other pressing needs like police, libraries and filling potholes. “We do have to carefully balance our resources,” Deesing says.