Most Cities Don’t Need Innovation Offices

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June 25 2013 8:32 AM

Most Cities Don’t Need Innovation Offices

They often focus on short-term projects instead of long-term change.

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But at present, many innovation offices are not pursuing this kind of long-term, capacity-building, distributed approach. Instead, they often pursue small-scale, public-facing technological projects using the lean startup model. These often take the form of apps like Where’s My School Bus?, which addresses long wait times for buses delayed by snowfall. But they may also involve larger-scale projects that are not designed to solve any one particular problem. For example, the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation’s major initiatives in 2012 included ImproveSF, an online platform for soliciting feedback and ideas from citizens. Increasingly, innovation offices in cities such as San Francisco are also pursuing legislative changes to support their work around open data and transparency.

But even in big cities, and even when the goals go beyond an app, innovation offices’ work is supported by limited resources, making institutional change difficult. During its first year of operation, San Francisco’s innovation office had a budget of $420,000, of which $350,000 was allocated for staff. While better than nothing, this is a paltry sum with which to alter the structural impediments to innovation in city government—say, employees’ reluctance to embrace new approaches or legal requirements that prevent speedy adoption of new ways of doing things. The goal of an office of innovation should be to encourage and build capacity within the local government, not be responsible for all new approaches in a city. But that cultural and skill shift requires both resources and time—things that are in short supply for most innovation offices, which are trying to demonstrate their value to the public and to the elected officials who created them.

As a result, innovation offices tend not to focus on internal, less well-publicized solutions that can create greater efficiencies. Department heads should strive for greater efficiency, but innovation offices can do more to assist ongoing efforts at the departmental level. While they may be useful, apps like Adopt-a-Hydrant are an easier sell than transitioning to a new email system or creating a more efficient method for payroll at City Hall. To be sure, many innovation offices are thinking beyond technological solutions, considering design thinking approaches, for example, and developing new policy approaches like San Francisco’s efforts to help small businesses and startups through the creation of innovation zones and low-cost insurance bonds. But the emphasis is still largely on technological quick fixes that can be deployed at a low cost and that may not be accessible to many residents.

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The problem is not just one of resources, but also one of structure and culture. It can be difficult for innovation offices to pursue meaningful collaborations or share knowledge with different departments. In addition, by pulling cutting-edge thinkers into one single unit, cities lose the opportunity to create a potential leadership pipeline that ensures the diffusion of innovators across the city and that builds capacity within existing structures. If a true culture of innovation is to take root in local government, it can’t be siloed in an innovation office.

Other models may work better. Rather than establishing an innovation office or appointing a CIO, government employees participating in a leadership development program in Marin County, Calif., created a funded innovation task force composed of people at all levels of county government, hailing from a number of different departments. A grants program funded initiatives proposed by employees and included both public-facing projects (like electric bikes in county parks) and internal programs to improve efficiency (like vehicle laptops for the probation department). But more important than these specific projects is the way that the task force encourages relationship-building across county government, beginning a larger process of institutional change than the structure of most innovation offices allows.

In most cases, CIOs have the advantage of having the ear of the mayor, and they are doing important work that extends well beyond what one might reasonably expect given their limited resources. Plus, innovation offices are still in their infancy. In the coming years, no doubt, they will evolve and change, transitioning from startups to mature laboratories as they develop new strategies for being effective.

But we should not assume that the mere establishment of an office of innovation will change the way that local government operates or that it is a model that is appropriate for all types of locales. For that, we need to look beyond the implementation of tech solutions to a more cohesive and comprehensive way of changing government from the inside. In the right circumstances, innovation offices may be a part of that process, but they are not a silver bullet.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Rachel Burstein is a research associate at the California Civic Innovation Project of the New America Foundation and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center.