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San Francisco's Jay Nath Leaves City Hall to Focus on Startup in Residence

Nath has joined nonprofit City Innovate Foundation as its co-executive director. His former deputy Krista Canellakis has replaced him as chief innovation officer.

San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath, a key architect of its groundbreaking Startup in Residence (STiR) program, has left City Hall to focus more exclusively on leading the fast-growing civic-tech sector collaboration, now in its fourth year.

Nath confirmed to Government Technology that he was in his second week on the job as co-executive director at the City Innovate Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on helping local governments develop user-centered products and services.

Deputy CIO Krista Canellakis has been named the city's new chief innovation officer, a change recently reflected on the website for the Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation (MOCI).

Canellakis started with MOCI five years ago in the first cohort of Mayor Edwin Lee’s Innovation FeIlowship program, she said via email. In 2014, she led the creation of the Living Innovation Zones (LIZ) program in partnership with the city planning department, aimed at catalyzing creative interventions in the city’s public spaces.

“My passion throughout my experience in government is around building a community of civic entrepreneurs, both inside and outside of government, who are exploring fresh ways of tackling problems together,” said Canellakis, who described MOCI as “full steam ahead.”

“An important focus of our work for the next chapter is how we institutionalize innovative practices and mindsets into the DNA of city government and strengthen our city staff’s ability to collaborate and problem solve in new ways,” she said.

STiR, which connects young tech companies with government to address public-sector issues, began as a San Francisco in-house pilot in 2014 — an “experiment,” as Nath termed it. It has since grown exponentially, expanding nationwide to 12 jurisdictions in 2017, with participants as far flung as Boulder, Colo.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; and Washington, D.C.

The program has also inspired at least one variation, CivTechSA in San Antonio; and some of the developers who have participated have built products that have reshaped government work. Binti, for example, has created a program to streamline foster-care applications that is now being used in an increasing number of jurisdictions.

2018 Startups in Residence

The 2018 Startups in Residence cohort began in February and will wrap in June — but not before a demonstration day May 22 as part of Bridge SF 2018, from May 22 to 24 in San Francisco.

The fourth annual conference convenes cities, startups, academia, enterprise companies and venture capital in an effort to bridge the gap between public and private sectors.

In July 2017, the City Innovate Foundation took a leadership role amid STiR’s expansion though San Francisco remained heavily involved, contributing resources including a federal Department of Commerce grant of $500,000 that ends this June.

The Foundation’s Executive Director Kamran Saddique described STiR’s future then as one of "huge potential," and said its separation from City Hall would facilitate its scaling up. The nonprofit has been successful recently, Nath said, in securing “the same grant” for nearly $500,000 over three years as a new primary funding source.

Nath, who announced his departure internally in February and left the city during the latter half of the month, said he’ll always be grateful to the late Mayor Edwin Lee, who created MOCI, and to current Mayor Mark Farrell “for their unwavering confidence and support of my work,” especially with respect to STiR and their “broader commitment to cross-sector collaboration.”

But after 11 years of public service, Nath said he had decided his “commitment to improving government” is best served by focusing his energy and time on growing “the late Mayor Lee’s Startup in Residence program.” Joining the Foundation, he said, will allow him that opportunity.

“That’s something that’s always excited me, is the fact that cities are working collaboratively towards making better cities, and that we’re not competing and that we can share what’s working, what’s not working. When I think about the ability to make [an] impact, Startup in Residence, I think, is a great lever,” Nath said, noting that improving residents’ access to their governments can restore trust.

“And I think that if we can create a government that is more responsive, that is more effective, that we’re going to rebuild that trust and start getting people more involved,” he added.

Nath’s departure is a significant one. He’s held his position since January 2012, when Lee first established MOCI and tapped Nath to lead it. Nath had been with the city since 2006 and had previously served as its director of innovation. One of the first to have a chief innovation officer job at the city level anywhere in the United States, he quickly became one of the most prominent municipal gov tech executives in the country.

Work done under Nath in San Francisco often served as a bellwether, creating benchmarks and examples for public-sector tech leaders in other cities. When discussing new projects with CIOs in any city hall, it was not uncommon to hear them say they’d been inspired by programs that were started in San Francisco.

Nath contributed significantly to the city’s work on open data, leading its effort to be the nation’s second municipality to launch an open data portal. He founded Civic Bridge in 2015, which recruits private sector pro bono assistance on critical local government issues, and spearheaded the city’s universal Internet project, which he said is “very close” to becoming a reality and “hopefully establishing a new model for municipal broadband.”

“Civic innovation is about more than technology — it’s about bringing fresh approaches to civic challenges,” Canellakis said.

The city’s FiberforSF project, led by Farrell and Chief Information Officer Linda Gerull, who heads the sponsoring agency, has gone further than “any other major U.S. city,” Canellakis said, toward “creating an Internet utility that serves every home and business with gig-speed Internet.”

“The fiber network will provide all San Franciscans an equal opportunity to access educational and employment resources, participate in civic and social life and use online digital government services,” she said, adding that its net neutrality and privacy protections have been praised by FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and covered by national civil liberties groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

Nath also worked diligently to simplify how public agencies find and purchase technology, innovating within the often-fraught government procurement process. Creating an easier, automated process that encouraged innovators to work with government has been an evolving focus of the office during his tenure with the city.

But asked which of his accomplishments he is proudest of, Nath pointed to San Francisco’s work around “structured collaboration models” like STiR and its sister program, Civic Bridge.

The former CIO declined to speculate on what the future holds for MOCI, with unknowns of the June 5 special election to fill the unexpired term of Lee, who died unexpectedly on Dec. 12. Farrell, who was appointed temporarily to the post by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, will not be running.

But Nath said the office has left “an indelible mark on San Francisco and a number of other cities that we’ve worked with,” namely, its pivot to cross-sector collaboration.

“That shift in perspective, I think, is really the hallmark of the work that we’ve done, and I’m sure that will continue under any future leader. It’s something that I think is core to the values of San Francisco and the values of many other cities,” he said.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.