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Meet Tracy McKee, the New Innovation Chief in Charleston, S.C.

Charleston is the latest city to add an innovation officer to its governance structure, designating the position as one to find new and progressive ways to solve longtime municipal government challenges.

Tracy McKee is the new, and first-ever, chief innovation officer for Charleston, S.C., starting work in late November.

Chief innovation officer is a separate position from chief information officer, which is far more common in most cities. The prevalence of chief innovation officers, however, is growing. In fact, cities ranging from Bend, Ore., to Dallas have either added or are planning to add one this year. The definition of what a chief innovation officer does can vary widely between jurisdictions. Government Technology recently spoke with McKee about some of her immediate goals for Charleston, her background in gov tech and some of the long-term priorities for her in her new position.

McKee was an easy choice. A native of the city, her background is in GIS work. In fact, she served as GIS director for the city from 1999 through early 2018. She spent about 10 months as chief data officer of Baltimore before being appointed to be the first-ever chief innovation officer in her hometown.

“When the mayor had the opportunity to create this position and reached out to me,” McKee said, “I really saw it as an amazing opportunity to come back and do something special in the place that I consider home.”

What that something special looks like involves working on a set of recommendations stemming from a recent report by the Novak Consulting Group, which assessed and subsequently pinpointed ways that Charleston could improve organizational and operational efficiency. A big part of what McKee will be working on in the early days of her new position is carrying out those recommendations.

One specific example includes improving the city’s technical review process for various city departments. Part of this will involve tracking how much of a burden improving the technical review process is on staff.

“This seems very basic,” McKee said, “but it’s something that gets kind of lost as people get really busy.”

Charleston is also in the process of going fully digital with technical committee reviews by July, thereby cutting down on both the amount of time it takes to apply for a city code review and to process it.

It is, essentially, the type of innovation work likely to only be carried out by someone with a vast amount of experience in local government and who can manage change and new technology. It’s not the flashiest work, but it has the potential to change a problem that slows down government processes and draws upon limited resources, including labor hours.

There are also high-profile projects on the horizon for McKee as well, most notably continuing to advance what the city submitted to the recent Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. Charleston’s project was one of 35 named as a champion in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge of 2018, although it didn’t ultimately win the $1 million additional funding prize.

Still, McKee’s hope is to advance the city’s effort, which seeks to create a system that can help residents deal with potential flooding via predictive analytics tools, historical data and community mapping. About 75 percent of Charleston’s residents live in a designated flood zone, and the idea behind the project is to alert them in the event of flooding about areas and routes that are dry, so as not to disrupt their everyday lives.

Overall, McKee said she doesn’t see herself as the person in the city who necessarily develops new ideas, but rather someone who is actively engaging other staff members on a regular basis about their own ideas, subsequently working to find ways to make those ideas a reality.

“We have to really think about how we do things differently so that we can continue to improve,” McKee said. “The interesting part when you do small pilot projects is that not everything works, or it doesn’t work the way you think it will, and you get to tweak it and continuously improve. It’s just a fun place to be and you get to strive to make it better.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.