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Will the Chief Innovation Officer Transform Government?

When the concept first started taking hold in 2008, the focus was on education reform and sustainability. But once the recession hit, that focus changed to how to deal with budget cutting, economic development and job creation.

Move over, chief information officers. There is a new CIO in town. From Riverside, Calif., to Kansas City, Mo., and from Louisville, Ky., to Massachusetts, states and municipalities are hiring chief innovation officers. 

Yet while several municipalities and states are creating these positions, the job description, scope of work and relationship to tech projects vary widely. Some job descriptions sound like economic development agency executives, charged with promoting job growth and luring businesses to the community. Other municipalities, like San Francisco, place a strong emphasis on transparency and open data initiatives. Philadelphia’s chief innovation officer position encompasses the chief information officer role, internal business process transformation and startup tech business support.

Jayson White, who works at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has helped several cities create innovation positions. When the concept first started taking hold in 2008, the focus was on education reform and sustainability, he said. But once the recession hit, that focus changed to how to deal with budget cutting, economic development and job creation. “They didn’t want to just manage decline but start an upward spiral,” said White, project manager of the Urban Policy Advisory Group, which leads a dialog among chiefs of staff and senior policy advisers to mayors in the 35 largest cities across the country.

One trend cities and states are targeting is better ways to use technology. “You see cities creating these ‘free safety’ positions,” White said, using a football metaphor. “They can work on alternative ways to do procurement or broker deals across agencies or push for greater use of social media.”

A Growing List

Chief innovation officers are becoming more common in public agencies. Here is a partial list of innovation-related positions in state and local government.

  • Adel Ebeid, chief innovation officer, Philadelphia
  • Jack Elsey, chief of innovation and incubation, Chicago Public Schools
  • Brett Goldstein, CIO and commissioner of the Department of Innovation, Chicago
  • Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, co-chairs for the Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston
  • Rahul Merchant, chief information and innovation officer, New York City
  • Jay Nath, chief innovation officer, city and county of San Francisco
  • Tony Parham, government innovation officer, Massachusetts
  • Michael Powell, chief innovation officer, Maryland
  • Ted Smith, chief of economic growth and innovation, Louisville, Ky., Metro Government
But making changes to internal government operations remains an uphill battle. White said the most fruitful approach may be to determine how to use technology to change underlying rules. “For instance, it’s OK to build a one-stop shop for business permitting. That’s great. But even better is to get at the underlying problem: that the 15 licenses don’t produce much value,” he said. “So you don’t want to use technology to paper over problems, but to completely re-create services.”

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C., said it’s too early to say whether these positions will catch on, but the fundamental challenge facing these new CIOs is that most governments don’t want to change in a fundamental way. It is easier to throw some data together and create new apps than to really transform an existing function of government. 

“We will know one has succeeded when a state department of motor vehicles has been transformed into the 21st century. But doing this is really hard work,” Atkinson said. “You have to take on unions and confront recalcitrant middle managers and agency heads.” The question he poses to public-sector innovators is: “How do you plan to take on entrenched interests to drive core innovations as opposed to innovation around the edges?”

Government Technology asked several chief innovation officers to describe their goals and experiences so far.

Montgomery County, Md.

Montgomery County, Md.,  recently hired Dan Hoffman, a former project manager at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to be its first chief innovation officer. County Council President Roger Berliner, who pushed to create the new position, said the county held meetings with executives from companies like Google and Twitter and asked what they look for when they want to move employees to a new location. And the answer, Berliner said, is that they look for locations that have embraced innovation. “That may sound trite,” he added, “but they said look at your own government data. That is a treasure trove if you let private entrepreneurs at it. They can create apps for you. That is an economic opportunity we need to take.” Berliner said it will require a change in culture in terms of how the county does business internally. 

“People have said to me you can’t shift the culture with a new department, but I don’t know how else to do it,” Berliner said. “Change is a hard thing. Maybe a beacon of innovation can begin to change things. I hope so.” 

He noted that Montgomery County is in a fierce economic development competition with counties in northern Virginia. “We have to work on our business culture.”


As chief innovation officer of Philadelphia, Adel Ebeid’s time is split between the traditional role of chief information officer and the new responsibilities as innovation officer. Before taking the Philadelphia position in August 2011, Ebeid was New Jersey’s chief information and technology officer. “While that was exciting, much of it was back-office work such as data center consolidations,” he said. “I really was interested in civic innovation and community engagement, so I spend most of my time identifying ways we can disrupt the status quo.”

Bay Area Innovation

Mayor Ed Lee created San Francisco’s Office of Civic Innovation in January 2012. Its focus is using innovation to drive economic growth and to improve government efficiency with various citizen engagement initiatives. In an email Q&A, we asked Deputy Innovation Officer Shannon Spanhake (photo below) to describe some of the office’s efforts.

What did you do before, and what interested you about this position? 

I became deputy innovation officer in February 2012, working with Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath to form the office and set our road map. Previously I was at a startup founded with a technology I patented while in graduate school to monitor air quality using a mobile phone. Having previous experience working with government to unsuccessfully get my technology piloted, I Google-searched “government innovation” and found Jay and the great work he was doing and became inspired by the opportunity to understand and change the way government engaged with startups and emerging technologies. So I’ve come into this position with a not-so-secret agenda to lower the barriers of entry to working with government and to find new ways for government to support innovation and entrepreneurship at the local level.

Is there anything that has surprised you since taking the job?

I have been pleasantly surprised by how flexible and innovative government can be when the right approach is taken. When I tell people I meet about my role, they often reply with terms like “professional suicide” or questions like “government and innovation … what?” as they conjure up the stereotypical image of a bureaucrat. But once I describe our work, the conversation changes. I’m hoping our work inspires a new image of the public servant so that others will come and join us.

Let’s talk about some of your main focus areas. How about streamlining permitting to start a business? 

We will be launching this initiative early in 2013. While it’s a great opportunity to enable our business community by streamlining the business permit process, it’s also an opportunity for us to do some spring cleaning. As permits are put online, we are also evaluating the necessity of the permit. Can multiple permits be merged into one? Is there a need for a new type? Do we need arcade permits anymore? This will not happen overnight, but we are beginning the process.

What is your approach to open data initiatives?

The latest version of our open data legislation, which we revised and reintroduced in October, calls for a closer partnership with the private sector, so not only are we making data available, but also we are actually working with private-sector companies to include their data on our [application programming interface].

The best example of this is a company called MotionLoft, which operates a private-sensor network that collects real-time data on how people move around the city. Whether that’s by foot, bike or car, MotionLoft is able to collect valuable data about how much traffic passes by various storefronts or neighborhoods. They’ve made a subset of their data available through DataSF, which gives app developers, building owners and city departments a sense of when and where congestion happens and how much foot traffic a building may have at various hours. You can see how this data would be interesting and valuable to government agencies, businesses and the average citizen.

I saw several references to hackathons on your website. What is appealing with this approach to civic problem solving?

The appealing thing about hackathons is that they bring new insights and a level of energy focused on solving a problem. Recently we have been considering what happens beyond the hackathon. How can we set the conditions for some of those prototypes to scale from hackathon to market? Our Municipal Transportation Agency is currently testing Smart Muni, an app (that came out of our Summer of Smart hackathon series with the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts) that allows operators to gather real-time data to improve operations. So hackathons can help government solve a variety of operational challenges, but they also hold the potential to create new products and companies to strengthen our economy.

Ebeid recently hired a chief data officer, Mark Headd, to help develop ways to “liberate” city data and create matchmaker tools to help the local technology community grow. “In Philly we have something called Nerd Street — which is actually 3rd Street, stretching from Old Town to Northern Liberties — that has a very high concentration of early stage startups,” he said. They need government to help create demand for their services and they need the city to liberate its data. “So we regularly have hackathons and public-private cooperation on problem-solving,” Ebeid explained.

The city was selected as a finalist for the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a competition to generate innovative ideas that can be shared nationwide. Philadelphia is proposing a public-private partnership to nurture social entrepreneurship. Called the Philadelphia Social Enterprise Partnership, this initiative engages entrepreneurs in framing social challenges and seeking innovative solutions. “They are still for-profit companies, but they would have a social agenda and the government and nonprofit organizations would nurture that ecosystem,” Ebeid said. “I call it innovating with intent.”

Ebeid oversees a team of roughly 500 IT staffers in a highly centralized IT group. He has led an effort to modernize core infrastructure and focus on eight core system upgrades or replacements. He said one of the biggest challenges is trying to get people in city government to adhere to an IT governance process. “When the problems are immediate and right at your door, the tendency is to focus on point solutions,” he explained. “It is difficult to resist that temptation and accept the governance process. But while innovation is important, so is sustainable innovation.” 

Ebeid fields many phone calls from other municipalities curious about his job title. “I get as many as one or two a week,” he said. “I started calling it ‘innovation envy.’ One thing I tell them is that they should focus on solving a real problem as opposed to creating the position just to have an office with that title.”


Mike Powell left IBM Corp. to become Maryland’s chief innovation officer in August 2012. 

Powell sees his role as being the governor’s eyes and ears on several key projects throughout state government, including a health benefit exchange and health information exchange, although other executives have ultimate responsibility for those projects. His position helps agencies consider alternatives to traditional procurements, he said. There are now cloud solutions and Google Docs being deployed and gradually rolled out to state departments. “There is an RFP for a new personnel system,” Powell said. “In the old days, that would be for a traditional [ERP] system only. But now, at a minimum, cloud-based solutions will be part of the mix.”

One of his projects is a centralized business licensing system, an online one-stop shop for all business licenses and permits. Another is the Maryland Innovation Initiative to help universities in the state partner on research. For instance, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine could partner across disciplines with engineering researchers at Johns Hopkins University on a solution.

“We can provide early funding to get an idea off the ground,” Powell said. “Maryland has so much intellectual capital and patent creation. We have to do a better job of translating that into job growth and create the next great tech startup here in Maryland.”

Louisville, Ky.

Ted Smith, chief of economic growth and innovation for the Metro Government of Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky., talked Mayor Greg Fischer into changing his job description after just six months on the job. 

Smith was named director of innovation in July 2011 to serve as a one-person czar. “I asked him how far a one-person office is going to get you. If we are going to take innovation seriously, we have to put it in context where we can get the highest value in each development sphere. We decided to merge it with economic development, rename it and I was named the executive to lead it.”

Smith oversees efforts to make Louisville more attractive to global business (including creating a director of globalization position) and fosters the local small-farm movement. He’s interested in developing platforms and infrastructure so that the private sector can flourish. Smith cited Louisville’s partnership with Asthmapolis, which collects data from sensors in asthma patients’ inhalers and feeds it back to patients and public health agencies to help identify communitywide triggers that can be improved or eliminated. A coalition of public- and private-sector stakeholders came together to provide the initial funding for the project.

Smith said that when politicians and the public ask about metrics and return on investment for stand-alone innovation positions, they probably won’t like the answers they get. “When I was new at the job, people asked me if I could tell them when we could expect to schedule delivery of these innovations, but it is not that easy,” he said. “If innovations could be planned and scheduled, we wouldn’t have had this long recession. I see us as creating a petri dish where innovations can pop up. There is always going to be a crowd skeptical of government and that won’t want you to play that role. Unless you move the job into the economic development context, you are always going to have a target on your back.”

Colorado Springs, Colo.

An executive who has pondered showing return on investment is Nick Kittle, Colorado Springs’ innovation and sustainability manager. “Many of these offices are being created in more progressive cities, but we are in a fiscally conservative area,” he said. “I think innovation and sustainability pay for themselves, but we had to think about how to tell the story of innovation.” 

Kittle’s four-person department set up some ways to measure the value of innovation. For example, the city’s streets division wouldn’t sell 20-year-old equipment because it didn’t know if it would get funding for replacements. Money from selling old equipment goes back into the general fund. “So what incentive do they have to sell?” Kittle asked. He came up with the idea to change the incentive. “We gave them a one-time shot to sell old equipment and keep the money to reinvest. They sold 69 pieces of equipment for $585,000. They reinvested that in new equipment and that led to $150,000 in maintenance cost savings alone.” 

Another example involves IT. Departments were starting to use iPads and iPhones, but the IT department was worried about supporting all the apps. “We picked out 10 users, and working with the departments gave them scholarships to study apps,” he said. “We bought them the hardware. They picked the 10 apps most valuable to city departments and that IT would support.” With all other apps users are on their own. Those 10 users also conduct group trainings. “I think what we are doing should speak to fiscally conservative people,” Kittle said. “This is what they want from government: getting $1.23 back for every dollar they put into this organization.” 

Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto

David Raths is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.