Most Cities Don’t Need Innovation Offices

They often focus on short-term projects instead of long-term change.

Bay Bridge and San Francisco city view.
San Francisco

Photo by Mariusz Blach/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

To hear Fortune tell it on CNN Money, every city in the country will have a chief innovation officer before too long. The city of Austin, Texas, announced the creation of a new chief innovation officer post a few weeks ago. And Christine Quinn recently pledged to establish an office of innovation if she is elected mayor of New York City. While responsibilities vary, in general, city chief innovation officers are charged with developing new ways of deploying governmental services and engaging residents, mostly through the innovative use of technology.

But in an era of budget shortfalls, is creating (and paying for) an innovation post really a good idea? Before cities jump on the innovation office bandwagon, they need to think carefully and critically about what such groups can and cannot do.

A year ago, Atlantic Cities identified just two municipal chief innovation officers nationwide, both of whom had been on the job for less than six months. Today, at least 10 midsize to large cities have chief innovation officers, including Philadelphia; San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo; and San Leandro, Riverside, and Davis, Calif. A survey conducted in January and February  by the National League of Cities and the Public Technology Institute found that 44 percent of cities with populations of more than 300,000 and 10 percent of cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 had offices of innovation. And more will, no doubt, follow.

Some great projects have come out of these efforts. Boston’s New Urban Mechanics is creating ways for city workers to catalog information about infrastructure conditions and to manage their tasks, potentially resulting in greater efficiencies, a more responsive government, and a more satisfied workforce. A project in Louisville, Ky., involving multiple partners, including the city, is working to reduce asthma triggers and save resources by distributing inhalers. It’s also using sophisticated mapping tools, in coordination with the data collected by the city’s Office of Performance Improvement’s LouieStat system, to identify and respond to asthma “hot spots.”

But innovation offices aren’t the only places in local government in which creative thinking occurs and flourishes. And not all innovation offices pursue projects that result in long-lasting, meaningful change. Even when they do, they are not appropriate for every type of city. For smaller, less-well-resourced communities, other structures for encouraging and supporting innovation make more sense.

I work for the California Civic Innovation Project, and in our recent study of perceptions of innovation in local government, we found that while a majority of city managers, county administrators, and their deputies identified their communities as “willing to experiment with new approaches,” only 10 percent considered their cities “pioneers and early adopters.” This was not just a judgment on the culture of the city but a statement about budgets too strapped to allow for focus on developing and implementing new—and potentially unproven—ideas.

The leaders of these under-resourced cities are wise not to pursue the title of “early adopter.” Instead, they can take smaller steps to encourage innovation. For instance, encouraging cross-departmental collaboration can help staff members develop, evaluate, and pursue new ways of solving existing problems.

But at present, many innovation offices are not pursuing this kind of long-term, capacity-building, distributed approach. Instead, they often pursue small-scale, public-facing technological projects using the lean startup model. These often take the form of apps like Where’s My School Bus?, which addresses long wait times for buses delayed by snowfall. But they may also involve larger-scale projects that are not designed to solve any one particular problem. For example, the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation’s major initiatives in 2012 included ImproveSF, an online platform for soliciting feedback and ideas from citizens. Increasingly, innovation offices in cities such as San Francisco are also pursuing legislative changes to support their work around open data and transparency.

But even in big cities, and even when the goals go beyond an app, innovation offices’ work is supported by limited resources, making institutional change difficult. During its first year of operation, San Francisco’s innovation office had a budget of $420,000, of which $350,000 was allocated for staff. While better than nothing, this is a paltry sum with which to alter the structural impediments to innovation in city government—say, employees’ reluctance to embrace new approaches or legal requirements that prevent speedy adoption of new ways of doing things. The goal of an office of innovation should be to encourage and build capacity within the local government, not be responsible for all new approaches in a city. But that cultural and skill shift requires both resources and time—things that are in short supply for most innovation offices, which are trying to demonstrate their value to the public and to the elected officials who created them.

As a result, innovation offices tend not to focus on internal, less well-publicized solutions that can create greater efficiencies. Department heads should strive for greater efficiency, but innovation offices can do more to assist ongoing efforts at the departmental level. While they may be useful, apps like Adopt-a-Hydrant are an easier sell than transitioning to a new email system or creating a more efficient method for payroll at City Hall. To be sure, many innovation offices are thinking beyond technological solutions, considering design thinking approaches, for example, and developing new policy approaches like San Francisco’s efforts to help small businesses and startups through the creation of innovation zones and low-cost insurance bonds. But the emphasis is still largely on technological quick fixes that can be deployed at a low cost and that may not be accessible to many residents.

The problem is not just one of resources, but also one of structure and culture. It can be difficult for innovation offices to pursue meaningful collaborations or share knowledge with different departments. In addition, by pulling cutting-edge thinkers into one single unit, cities lose the opportunity to create a potential leadership pipeline that ensures the diffusion of innovators across the city and that builds capacity within existing structures. If a true culture of innovation is to take root in local government, it can’t be siloed in an innovation office.

Other models may work better. Rather than establishing an innovation office or appointing a CIO, government employees participating in a leadership development program in Marin County, Calif., created a funded innovation task force composed of people at all levels of county government, hailing from a number of different departments. A grants program funded initiatives proposed by employees and included both public-facing projects (like electric bikes in county parks) and internal programs to improve efficiency (like vehicle laptops for the probation department). But more important than these specific projects is the way that the task force encourages relationship-building across county government, beginning a larger process of institutional change than the structure of most innovation offices allows.

In most cases, CIOs have the advantage of having the ear of the mayor, and they are doing important work that extends well beyond what one might reasonably expect given their limited resources. Plus, innovation offices are still in their infancy. In the coming years, no doubt, they will evolve and change, transitioning from startups to mature laboratories as they develop new strategies for being effective.

But we should not assume that the mere establishment of an office of innovation will change the way that local government operates or that it is a model that is appropriate for all types of locales. For that, we need to look beyond the implementation of tech solutions to a more cohesive and comprehensive way of changing government from the inside. In the right circumstances, innovation offices may be a part of that process, but they are not a silver bullet.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.