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Austin, Texas: Next in Line for an Innovation Officer

The city is currently developing an office of innovation, and plans to hire a chief innovation officer and an analyst.

Following in the footsteps of cities like San Francisco and Louisville, Ky., the city of Austin, Texas, will soon hire a chief innovation officer – a position that will head the city’s future Office of Innovation.

According to Director of Public Works Howard Lazarus, the city hopes to begin the recruitment process in June for its first innovation officer, and choose a candidate before the new fiscal year begins in October. The city is also looking to hire an analyst for the Office of Innovation.

Lazarus said the future chief innovation officer will most likely report to assistant city managers on a day-to-day basis. However, it is likely the innovation officer will also have direct contact with City Manager Marc Ott frequently. Although the Office of Innovation will be housed under the city manager's office, the candidate selected for the position will also work closely with Austin’s current CIO Stephen Elkins.

One of the major roles of the future innovation officer will be to serve as a connector between people with ideas and people with ways to get things done, Lazarus said. But right now, the city is making sure the Office of Innovation isn't too narrowly defined to ensure the recruitment remains as broad as possible.

“We’re looking for someone who is intuitive and inherently creative,” Lazarus said.

Like other innovation officers in the public sector, Austin’s chief innovation officer will work across city departments in an effort to break down silos, but also have a more outward-facing relationship with the community, helping to develop relationships between the city and universities and other individuals in the tech community. 

Austin – a former Code for America partner city and recent recipient of a Google Fiber contract – is starting to attract attention for pushing the envelope on innovation. Boasting an open data portal featuring more than 200 data sets, an active tech community has helped spur the development of several civic apps to serve the public good, including wildfire preparation app and a financial transparency site, Austin Finance Online.

Earlier this year, the city and Google officially announced that Austin would join Kansas City, Kan. and Mo., in becoming the third city to be chosen for Google Fiber. According to Google’s official Fiber Blog, Austin homes will start to be connected to the network in mid-2014.

What Austin Learned About Innovation

Doug Matthews, chief communications director of Austin, said the city has come a long way since first deciding to appoint a chief innovation officer. In formulating its plan for the position, Austin collected several key concepts about how innovation influences a city. Matthews outlined five major points that Austin has learned:

1.    Innovation is many things, and you can’t expect to be all of them all at once.

According to Matthews, it’s important to create a system that reflects the organization’s expectations and character as well as its executive and elected leaders.

2.    You can’t expect to launch an innovation initiative if you don’t have a strategy for addressing the  organizational culture concurrently.

3.    Money for projects isn’t as important as you might think -- Research showed Austin that what employees need most are time and support from management and supervisors.

4.    The desire to try new innovations is already present throughout your organization – staff members are just waiting to be asked.

5.    There’s significant interest within the community to contribute – they just don’t know where to go. Defining a “front door” for them to knock on is a critical first step.

Sarah Rich is a former staff writer for Government Technology.