Chief innovators come of age

Ten years ago, the role of “chief innovation officer” didn’t exist in local government. Fast forward to today, and it’s common to find people in city halls all around the world who hold that job title or something similar to it.

More than 60 of them from a dozen countries convened on Sunday in Detroit, in what was this group’s largest gathering ever. Held a day before the annual CityLab summit, this Chief Innovators Studio was a chance for city innovators to trade ideas, hone skills, and reflect on how far the movement they’re building has come.

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“The innovation director trend reflects a critical shift in local government, and a recognition that we can no longer leave innovation to chance,” said James Anderson, head of Government Innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, as he kicked off Sunday’s gathering. “We need innovation to be deliberate, rigorous, and continuous — a core capability we can draw upon each and every time opportunities emerge.”

While the job description for chief innovators varies by city, they are typically the people in city halls who are leading the charge to solve problems in new ways. They’re bringing in tools like “human-centered design” to tailor city services more closely around the needs of residents; engaging residents to test ideas and co-design programs; using behavioral research to inform city strategies; and analyzing data to understand what works.

A picture is beginning to emerge of the state of the field, according to Marissa Plouin of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), who released preliminary findings Sunday from a joint OECD/Bloomberg Philanthropies global survey of innovation capacity in local governments.

Generally speaking, Ms. Plouin said, the innovation offices in the 89 cities that responded to the survey are new and tend to be small. Only 21 percent of them have existed for more than five years, and a majority of the cities have fewer than 10 staff dedicated to innovation. More than half of the cities have formal innovation goals, and three out of four of them have dedicated funding for the function.

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Green as they may be, these teams are already having an impact, city leaders say. Respondents said innovation offices are improving delivery of services, streamlining government operations, and improving resident outcomes.

Those gathered Sunday also reported great strides in their cities as well. In Long Beach, Calif., Innovation Chief Tracy Colunga said the Innovation Team started three years ago with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies has now, after the grant ended, evolved to a model where city agencies are paying for their consulting services.

What’s more, Colunga said, i-team alumni are now working in other positions throughout the city, bringing their data-driven, resident-focused methods with them to other agencies. Colunga’s predecessor now heads up the city’s economic development department. Her former deputy director now runs the city’s Justice Lab, where she works on diverting low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system and toward social services.

“It’s sad to see amazing young people move on,” Colunga said. “But we’re planting in other departments innovators who are trained in human-centered design and data analytics.”

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Mike Sarasti, Chief Innovation Officer in Miami, also is seeing signs of his team’s work permeating the culture at City Hall. Sarasti has been co-leading training for 200 city employees, teaching them how to spot and fix waste in their everyday work. One day recently, he saw hanging on a wall a “process map” that someone had drawn, independently of the training sessions. “It’s the first time I’ve seen that,” he said.

Sarasti recently saw his role expand significantly. In addition to the chief innovation officer role, he’s also taken on responsibility for the city’s IT operations, as well as strategic planning. “It feels like a natural evolution,” he said, noting that the change means he’s gone from managing a few people to a staff of 85 now. “It’s no longer a small team where we’re parachuting in and giving advice. Now there’s a tremendous opportunity to do this work at scale.”

Grace Simrall, Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology in Louisville, Ky., said support for innovation is deepening in her city as well. “From a senior leadership perspective, everyone from chiefs to directors to assistant directors are fully bought in,” she said. “They recognize there’s a lot of value to doing business this way.”

“Right now, we’re in a golden age of civic innovation,” she continued. “It’s not a title for a title’s sake. The people here are doing incredibly important work. Sometimes we feel like we’re doing it in a vacuum or by ourselves. But we know the others are out there. I’m amazed when I come to this how much good work people are doing.”