Most Cities Don’t Need Innovation Offices

What's to come?
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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.