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California Innovation Officers Reveal Success Secrets

Experts discuss how public-sector agencies can move the needle on innovation in the state.

SACRAMENTO -- If governments want to get serious about innovation, they need to foster an environment where it's OK for employees to fail while trying new ideas, according to some of California's leading public-sector innovators.

Speaking Thursday at the California Leadership Forum, a panel of government leaders discussed the strategies and tools they use to better serve citizens now and into the future. The secret to successful innovation isn't just implementing technology, they said, it's about championing a culture change in the workplace.

“I think the chief innovation officer is the new chief information officer,” said Lea Deesing, chief innovation officer of Riverside, Calif. “It means we have to manage more than zeros and ones … we're being expected to do more. The title itself gives us permission to create, innovate and invent things. It encourages it, which is exciting. It raises the bar.”

Joining Deesing on the panel was Jeremy Goldberg, deputy chief of staff for San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and leader of civic innovation efforts for the city; and Robert White, chief innovation officer of Davis, Calif. The discussion was moderated by Dustin Haisler, chief innovation officer of e.Republic.

(Editor's Note: The California Leadership Forum was hosted by Governing magazine, which is owned by e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.)

Chief innovation officers began joining government a few years ago, although their duties have varied. For example, San Francisco focused the position on transparency and open data, while others placed and emphasis on job growth and economic development.

To promote innovation, Deesing said organizations need to create a culture where staff members feel safe to experiment on projects. Goldberg agreed, adding that it's important to identify “internal champions” who can work with external parties on projects that are do-able in a short amount of time.

White said Davis is soliciting community support for innovation through local media and online blogs. He pushes out information on what's happening inside city hall and solicits data from citizens about what types of projects they are working on.

Although there is great interest in innovation throughout California, Goldberg said “getting serious” about innovation starts with grassroots communication and outreach efforts not just in big cities, but also in smaller communities.

White added that just talking about success stories isn't enough to foster the culture change needed in government agencies to make innovation thrive.

“I would love to see at the state level, some kind of recognition or awarding of folks who in their daily jobs, are just changing the way we think about delivering government services,” he said. “That would be a very meaningful way to get others to be engaged and see these best practices and opportunities.”

Deesing recommended that governments engage citizens on a more technical level. She said opening data to the public can help improve communication and spur ideas on how government can better serve its residents.

For example, Engage Riverside, the city's transparency portal, has a link to MindMixer, an engagement tool where community members, city staff and outside organizations can share ideas. Those discussions led to development of programs such as free computer training for low-income families.

Riverside also helps promote the Maker Movement, where individuals create items often using technology like 3-D printers and other resources at shared facilities, Deesing said. Vocademy is one center in Riverside that hosts this subculture of innovators.

White predicted that robotics will be the innovation that changes how citizens interact with government agencies. Ultimately government tasks such as issuing a permit to install a water heater could be completely automated with artificial intelligence, he said. As a result, agency staff could work on bigger community engagement activities.

Deesing noted that as governments continue to compile data and expand online engagement tools, cybersecurity will become an even bigger focus for innovators.

“It's fun to talk about all the great things we're about to do with technology, but if we're not protecting our current assets, our department of justice data, our police data, our fire data, if we're not doing that, I think we're doing a disservice,” she said.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.