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.

Bay Bridge and San Francisco city view.
San Francisco

Photo by Mariusz Blach/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

To hear Fortune tell it on CNN Money, every city in the country will have a chief innovation officer before too long. The city of Austin, Texas, announced the creation of a new chief innovation officer post a few weeks ago. And Christine Quinn recently pledged to establish an office of innovation if she is elected mayor of New York City. While responsibilities vary, in general, city chief innovation officers are charged with developing new ways of deploying governmental services and engaging residents, mostly through the innovative use of technology.

But in an era of budget shortfalls, is creating (and paying for) an innovation post really a good idea? Before cities jump on the innovation office bandwagon, they need to think carefully and critically about what such groups can and cannot do.

A year ago, Atlantic Cities identified just two municipal chief innovation officers nationwide, both of whom had been on the job for less than six months. Today, at least 10 midsize to large cities have chief innovation officers, including Philadelphia; San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo; and San Leandro, Riverside, and Davis, Calif. A survey conducted in January and February  by the National League of Cities and the Public Technology Institute found that 44 percent of cities with populations of more than 300,000 and 10 percent of cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 had offices of innovation. And more will, no doubt, follow.

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Some great projects have come out of these efforts. Boston’s New Urban Mechanics is creating ways for city workers to catalog information about infrastructure conditions and to manage their tasks, potentially resulting in greater efficiencies, a more responsive government, and a more satisfied workforce. A project in Louisville, Ky., involving multiple partners, including the city, is working to reduce asthma triggers and save resources by distributing inhalers. It’s also using sophisticated mapping tools, in coordination with the data collected by the city’s Office of Performance Improvement’s LouieStat system, to identify and respond to asthma “hot spots.”

But innovation offices aren’t the only places in local government in which creative thinking occurs and flourishes. And not all innovation offices pursue projects that result in long-lasting, meaningful change. Even when they do, they are not appropriate for every type of city. For smaller, less-well-resourced communities, other structures for encouraging and supporting innovation make more sense.

I work for the California Civic Innovation Project, and in our recent study of perceptions of innovation in local government, we found that while a majority of city managers, county administrators, and their deputies identified their communities as “willing to experiment with new approaches,” only 10 percent considered their cities “pioneers and early adopters.” This was not just a judgment on the culture of the city but a statement about budgets too strapped to allow for focus on developing and implementing new—and potentially unproven—ideas.

The leaders of these under-resourced cities are wise not to pursue the title of “early adopter.” Instead, they can take smaller steps to encourage innovation. For instance, encouraging cross-departmental collaboration can help staff members develop, evaluate, and pursue new ways of solving existing problems.

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