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When Should a City Hire a Chief Innovation Officer?

Although the position is an increasingly common one for local governments, cities that don’t yet have one must still carefully weigh a number of factors before deciding to make the move.

Bend, Ore., recently decided to add a chief innovation officer to its governance structure.

The move comes after tech companies began relocating to town from the Bay Area, along with a new wave of residents looking to shed the complications of city life while still expecting the same level of governmental service. Meanwhile, many of the departments that make up the local government had already started using technology and data-driven governance practices on their own, creating an evolving culture for an innovation guru to hone and focus, said City Manager Eric King.

Adding the position just seemed to make sense.

The prevalence of chief innovation officers in city halls — as well as within state houses and at the county level — has certainly risen of late, with the position being basically unheard of just a few years ago. What chief innovation officers do varies between agencies, with a fairly wide range separating some from others. In general, though, a chief innovation officer is someone focused on keeping pace with the uses and capabilities of technology, harnessing it in a way that allows government to solve problems and become more efficient.

In Bend, for example, the chief innovation officer is actually an existing assistant city manager position that was recast, King said. Bend is a city with a little over 100,000 residents and roughly 700 total public employees, so responsibilities and specifics of the work there will look different from larger jurisdictions like San Francisco or Boston.

“I’m seeing more and more evidence of our organization needing much more detailed data to help us move through some of these complex decisions around affordable housing and transportation,” King said. “Our policy work is requiring a lot more rigor, our community demands it.”

Bend is far from alone in making this move. David S. Ricketts, who is a professor at Harvard University and has helped shape the innovation in science and technology courses in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences there, is an expert on innovation and business strategy. Ricketts said for cities like Bend there is often a political and symbolic commitment attached to adding an innovation officer, which is sometimes also called chief technology or chief information officer, or some combination thereof.

Some cities have executives tasked with managing their IT tasks and others charged with separate more innovative tech work, not wanting new ideas to fall to the people tasked with the everyday extant tech duties. Louisville, Ky., Ricketts said, is one example of that. New York City, meanwhile, has a similar position, except it’s called a chief technology officer instead of a chief innovation officer.

It all speaks to a larger transformation happening in government agencies across the country.

“The transformation that’s happening — no matter whether you have a title for it or not — is that cities are realizing they’re part of the innovation process,” Ricketts said. “It’s becoming a priority in the city. Whether they have a dedicated person, they typically have more dedicated resources toward the innovation space.”

Basically, the addition of this new role speaks to something bigger being new as well: the idea that innovation is a key duty and concept for governmental agencies, be they as large as New York City or as fast-growing as a place like Bend.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.