Settling into the C-Suite

We check in with the second wave of chief innovation officers charged with bucking the status quo.

by / June 2018
Michael Sarasti, Director of Innovation and Technology, Miami Steve Boxall

Less than a decade ago the chief innovation officer or CINO was viewed by some as a silly job title, just another ill-defined guru/Sherpa/visionary/Jedi thing.

Who’s laughing now?

Government CINOs are driving demonstrable change. Anchorage, Alaska, is poised to reap $1 million in revenue thanks to a rewrite of a couple city form letters; Rhode Island schools are driving down absenteeism by texting parents when kids don’t come to school; Arkansas is taking the paper out of government procurement. All these initiatives got their start in the CINO’s office.

In announcing the top data-driven cities of 2018, What Works Cities Executive Director Simone Brody made a telling statement. “All over the country, local governments are jumping into this movement and dramatically improving how their cities operate,” she said.

This comment on the rise of open data serves equally well as a launching point for a broader conversation about the rise of the chief innovation officer. Rooted in data and buoyed by IT advances, the CINO (and the less-common chief transformation officer) increasingly can be spotted on state and local government org charts. Some 40 percent of cities and 42 percent of counties had full-time innovation professionals on staff in 2017, and 49 percent of states reported having an innovation position on the books in 2016, according to surveys of city, county and state IT departments conducted by the Center for Digital Government.*

That makes this an ideal moment to pause and take a deeper look at the role these individuals play in driving government forward.

CINOs are empowering dramatic improvements with better data, better processes and creative collaborations. They’re often underfunded, and often must execute a complex dance with their counterparts in IT — but they are moving the needle.

What’s the job?

If we’re going to explore the effectiveness of the CINO, we’d better start by defining the job itself. Ask a half-dozen innovation chiefs what they do for a living and you’ll get half a dozen answers, but some common themes emerge. For most, technology is a helpful tool, rather than a guiding light. Primarily, they say, the CINO is there to drive organizational change.

Miami Director of Innovation and Technology Michael Sarasti, who until May served as CINO, says he’s here to urge process improvements, to leverage best practices from the private sector and to open up civic data. All this results in projects like the Innovation Academy, a monthly event that has so far trained some 100 city employees on “innovation techniques, generally based on lean thinking,” he said. “It’s a two-and-a-half-day course, training about 20 people per cohort. We teach them to see problems in their work area, we teach them a little bit about agile, about user testing and the cycle of experimentation. It’s about them feeling inspired about their work, feeling like they have some sense of control.”

Some innovation chiefs do their work at the highest levels of government, spurring big-picture structural changes. In Arkansas, Chief Transformation Officer Amy Fecher (one of just a few government officials to carry that title) is seeking to streamline processes statewide. She recently led a strategic planning exercise for cabinet-level agencies; she’s working on data center optimization and is also developing a new e-procurement regimen. “We want to see how we can go to less paper and more technology,” she said.

By contrast, others take a more citizen-centric view of the work. Anchorage CINO Brendan Babb wants to put health inspection data online alongside Yelp reviews. He wants to layer real-time bus information on Google Maps. He’s free to do that because of his place in the org chart, which puts him outside the ordinary daily grind. “It’s hard to experiment in government, where people are quick to accuse you of wasting taxpayer money. I can create a space where people can try things,” he said.


Kevin Parker, Director of Innovation, Rhode Island


Others talk about the collaborative nature of innovation. In Rhode Island, Director of Government Innovation Kevin Parker has launched an Innovation League that has so far pulled together some 50 eager innovators from 18 different departments. “These are people who are doing great work, but who need time and space to take their projects further,” he said.

“We come together to re-imagine how we can best meet the needs of users. For example, the group performed a user-shadow exercise at the Department of Health to walk in the shoes of someone coming into the building for the first time: What do they experience and how might we improve it?”

Still others describe innovation s a deeply personal exercise. They see themselves as drivers of change not just at the organizational level, but at the human level.

As CINO of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, Randy Nesbitt invites folks to stand before a 21-foot whiteboard and work through their problems in teams. They get two-and-a-half hours to come up with three or four practical “safe to fail” solutions. Being OK with failure is key to innovation, he says, as is working side by side. “When people sit across the table and brainstorm, then they become competitive,” he said. “When people are shoulder to shoulder facing the same problem, rather than sitting across from one another, it changes the dynamic. Most people don’t think about that.”

In Cary, N.C., Assistant Town Manager and Chief Innovation Officer Dan Ault gives perhaps the most succinct explanation of the CINO’s task. “My No. 1 role is to help people become the best version of themselves that they can be, to achieve whatever they want to achieve in their jobs,” he said. “In a municipal organization, you can’t always do everything, but if you are passionate about public service, I want to help you tap into that and realize that passion.”

Tools of the trade

These CINOs come to the table with big vision … and limited resources. Most have no dedicated budget for “innovation,” and may rely on grants or else piggyback on funds allocated in support of specific agency projects.

Money isn’t a prerequisite for innovation, but it helps. Sarasti, for instance, has a small discretionary fund of $50,000 that he uses for targeted projects. Say a useful app emerges from a hack-a-thon: He might spend $5,000 to adapt it for use in city systems.

Last year, Babb did a review of government form letters, including an animal control letter about dog registration and a library overdue notice. He spent $12,000 to prototype changes, and this convinced the Treasury to spend $55,000 on broader revisions that are expected to result in $1 million in revenue from previously uncollected fines. Cities will invest, “but it helps if you can do initiatives that show a direct financial return,” he said.

Money isn’t the only tool in the CINO toolbox, however.


Amy Fecher, Chief Transformation Officer, Arkansas


Ault says his strategic partnerships with companies like Salesforce, Box and Microsoft are key. “We are evolving more to a platform-based approach, and their enterprise platforms are what will power the city. This is what gives us the ability to configure and to build and to get updates, which in turn allows city employees to truly get the information they need when they need it,” he said.

More than just vendor relationships, these are true partnerships, in the sense that both sides benefit from their combined efforts. “We are the best lab for molding these products: We have so many different needs, so many different processes. We are working on the front lines, so it becomes a matter of mutual success. They need people like us to pioneer these things, to show that these things work,” he said.

In lieu of an actual “transformation” budget, Fecher has an ad hoc group of supportive colleagues helping to drive her agency. The 14-member transformation board is not an official state body, but rather a group of eager volunteers drawn from the public and private sectors and from academia. Executives from corrections and human services, a retired government finance executive and others meet every six weeks to talk about change.

“This is a group that can evaluate any possible projects and give their expert advice and recommendations. It’s an advisory role but it is very important because it gives us all these different perspectives. It gives us a fresh view that someone who is entrenched in state government might not have,” she said.

For some, neutrality is a major asset. As a direct report to the governor’s office, Parker has both the clout and the objectivity to do things a department head, for instance, could not do.

“Perhaps one of our strongest tools is our convening authority, our ability to be a neutral party,” he said. “We have the ability to bring people together to solve problems: Small business owners, technologists, academics, artists/designers — subject matter experts who are excited about the collaboration, whether they are internal or external.”

Internally, he’s careful to wield that authority delicately. “We can’t come in heavy-handed and say: ‘Hey, your website stinks,’” he said. The aim is “to learn what they are trying to achieve and then offer departments a set of non-traditional tools to help them do that.”

Finally, the CINO arsenal includes the all-important “fall guy” mechanism. How do you drive change? Be willing to take the lumps on everyone’s behalf.

“If an idea comes out of the departments and I try and it fails, I can take the blame for that a little more freely because of my Harry Potter-like title,” Babb said.

Sarasti: “I tell people that as long as I have a job, you can blame me. The running joke here is that it’s my fault. If you get in trouble, lay it on me.”

Parker: “I offer that all the time: Because I’m not embedded in their office the way they are all day every day, it’s easier for me to be the bad person, so they don’t have to take the hit. You need someone in the role who’s willing to take the arrows because we are trying to institutionalize change, and that is something that can happen a little faster by strategically sharing the burden.” 

Dancing with IT

On first glance, some people presume the innovation chief to be a technology leader, at least in part. There’s a natural inclination in our tech-centric era to conflate change and improvement with digital evolutions. Better government? Surely there’s an app for that.

While this view is not totally unfounded, the CINOs themselves describe a more complex relationship with the IT department. They depend on IT to manifest change, but innovation itself is not an IT function. Nor do they wish to be seen as driving the IT agenda, showing up on the CIO’s doorstep every week with a new development to-do list. A closely choreographed dance emerges.

Fecher meets regularly with the state CIO to mull opportunities of mutual benefit. Lately that has meant a shared focus on enterprise solutions, a methodology that streamlines workloads for IT while also enhancing the transformation agenda. “We want to make it easier to do things. If agencies are on the same platform, we can pull information more easily, we can be more holistic in our approach,” she said.

Sarasti describes himself as occupying an advisory role when it comes to IT, although some aspects of the traditional IT workload seem to flow naturally in his direction. There’s no chief data officer in Miami, so data-related decisions often fall to the innovation head. He can also take user testing problems off of IT’s shoulders, being already immersed in those conversations.


Julia Richman, Chief Innovation and Technology Officer, Boulder, Colo.


Mostly he tries to make life easier for those on the IT side by leveraging transformation as a means to lighten the burden of technology. “IT gets asked to do a lot of stuff that they shouldn’t be asked to do,” he said. “We help people to first refine what they are doing, so that they have really good processes before they go to the IT team.”

While there is generally a clear divide between innovation and IT, in some rare cases that gap can be bridged. Julia Richman, for instance, came to the city of Boulder, Colo., as innovation and analytics officer. In March she took on the tech mantle, becoming innovation and technology officer.

That gives her some muscle. Innovation had a $100,000 budget with 12 personnel answering to different department heads. Now, she directly oversees 50 people and a $10 million budget. She described it as a logical evolution.

“By starting in the city manager’s office, I had an easy way to work across the whole city, I had constituents everywhere and the support of my boss to get things done,” she said. “Now that I run a central service, I have both push and pull. There are a lot of services that I can offer. Not only am I asking you to do business differently, I am enabling you to do that. When it is a tech problem, I can draw on those resources.” 

The road forward

Richman’s transition may be indicative of a trend. Last spring, for example, Vermont repositioned its CINO, John Quinn, as CIO of a newly reorganized state IT agency.

Some envision the CINO taking an even more pragmatic turn. Last year, for instance, Ohio Gov. John Kasich speculated that a state-level chief innovation officer could help to commercialize research being done at Ohio universities. (The state Legislature has since moved to nix that idea.)

To get a sense of where the CINO is heading next, it’s helpful to look at what’s working, and to consider the wish lists of those presently on the job.

Breadth works. Successful innovation leaders say they can do their best work when they are given authority to operate across multiple lines of jurisdiction. “You need the ability to cut across departments. That’s where some of the best innovation happens, when you have three departments and you put them in the room together. That’s when the magic happens,” Sarasti said.

Outreach is another valuable tool. “Talking to other cities has been very beneficial to me,” Babb said, pointing to his collaborations through What Works Cities. “These relationships where you get to see what others are doing, where you have someone to call if you have a particular problem — that peer network of innovators can be really helpful.”

There’s broad consensus that the future success of the CINO, and the further expansion of this role, depends largely on buy-in from key stakeholders. The governor and the mayor, the city council and the department heads: All need to support the premise of innovation both philosophically and practically.

“Most state governments get entrenched in the way work has ‘always been done,’ but technology is changing so rapidly. We need strong leaders who want to embrace transformation, who will change with the digital community rather than fighting against it,” Fecher said. “When we want to implement a digital way to do something, rather than pushing paper around, that should be obvious, and right now it isn’t always. It is still challenging for a lot of people in state government to think that way.”

Suppose folks do come around. Then what’s next for the CINO? Ideally, some would say, oblivion.

“If the chief innovation officers do their job correctly, their job will eventually be unnecessary,” Nesbitt said. “Things will grow and change organically across the organization. If it’s done right, innovation shouldn’t just be an office held by a few people. I love my position, I think we are making headway, but innovation can and should happen anywhere, with anybody. In the long run, there doesn’t have to be a chief innovation officer.”

Others take a similar if somewhat less dramatic stance. Keep the CINO or do away with it, they say. What matters is not the title but the spirit that drives the enterprise.

“I don’t want my title to distract from the mission,” Ault said. “People focus on labels and buzzwords, they want to turn innovation into a specialization. I don’t believe in that. There is no ‘cool kids club.’ I am just here to increase capability, to help people achieve what they want to achieve.”  

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.