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Tracy McKee on Bringing an Innovation Mindset to Charleston

Newly appointed Charleston, S.C., Chief Innovation Officer Tracy McKee spent nearly two decades years working in GIS for the city, rounding out her resume with a stint as the chief data officer in Baltimore.

In the position since late November, Charleston, S.C.’s first chief innovation officer Tracy McKee is a Charleston native who served as the city’s GIS director for nearly 20 years until she left for a stint as chief data officer in Baltimore. When Charleston’s mayor created the innovation position in 2018, McKee was excited to take on the challenge.

1. The innovation officer role varies from city to city. What are you working on?

A primary focus I have right now is that the city hired Novak Consulting Group to do an organizational assessment and identify opportunities for performance optimization. Where can we make improvements to provide better service to our citizens? We’re reviewing the recommendations internally, reprioritizing based on our resources and what we think will be the most impactful, and then coming up with a plan to implement those. I call it that gray space of government that involves multiple departments and focuses on the mayoral priorities to help them collaborate, be creative, and use data and technology to inform decision-making and improve services. 

2. Are you still involved with GIS work?

One thing that I was a part of was the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge. We weren’t one of the big winners, but now we’re talking about how to take what we did with Bloomberg and figure out what pieces we can actually develop. Called Floodcon, the project was a predictive analytics tool that took historic data on road closures, weather and what the tidal gauge was in Charleston Harbor. Users could sign up and it would give predictions on the possibility of them experiencing flooding.

Sea level rise, storm water management and flooding are big issues here in Charleston. We’re talking through how to start building meaningful metrics around showing that we’re moving the needle, that we’re making progress. Longer term, how do we build not just accountability but also be able to illustrate to the citizens that there’s a lot of good work being done and we’re making progress? Because flooding is going to continue to be important here in Charleston. 

3. What’s your approach to bringing an innovation mindset to Charleston?

How do I help all city departments use data more effectively and help everyone become empowered and own their work? People often joke with me, “What are you innovating today?” But I don’t necessarily think of myself as the idea person. How do I interact with staff and citizens across all levels and find those ideas that can be extremely impactful? We have to think about how we do things differently so that we continuously improve the quality of services that we provide. 

4. How are you changing that way of thinking?

I’ve started a pilot project working in small groups to get people comfortable talking about issues, because when you talk about innovation, it has to be with purpose. We need to be solving a problem and getting people to talk about some of the problems they’re experiencing as an employee or even as a citizen. The interesting part when you do these small projects is that not everything is going to work, or not everything is going to work the way you think it is. You get to tweak it and to continually improve. At the end of the day, we’re in the customer service business, and it’s always about making it better for our citizens.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine
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