Over the last few years, there’s been an increasing trend to add a title to the C-suite: the “chief innovation officer.” In some cases, this person is replacing the chief information officer; in others, it’s a completely new position.

In particular, a number of cities have taken to the “chief innovation officer” concept (sometimes known as “CINOs,” to keep from confusing them with chief information officers). Starting with Philadelphia’s Adel Ebeid in 2011 and San Francisco’s Jay Nath, about a dozen cities now have chief innovation officers.

“The birth of the municipal chief innovation officer job is a response to these two trends: to fundamental changes in technology that are revolutionizing citizen engagement, and to a cultural movement that is turning the data-dense inner workings of city halls into public challenges that are actually kind of a kick to solve,” wrote Emily Badger in the Atlantic in March, 2012. “The chief information officer job traditionally involved actual infrastructure – maintaining the physical technology that houses and processes government data. Now, though, much of that information has moved into the cloud. And this means a CIO job – whatever the acronym stands for – can focus less on infrastructure and more on innovation.”

In the case of Ebeid, he took over IT in Philadelphia two years after consolidation of those services in the city began and amidst an ongoing prioritization battle of hundreds of IT requests from nearly all city agencies, wrote Technically Philly, noting that he had been head of IT from the state of New Jersey and that his job would subsume the CTO role.

In September, 2012, Ebeid was honored by the White House for his work with KEYSPOT, which, at the time of his award, had served over 165,000 visitors at more than 80 locations in all Philadelphia neighborhoods, and provided more than 900 workstations to the public for free Internet access, computer classes, one-on-one training and more, noted the KEYSPOT blog.

So, what is the purpose of the city-based Chief Innovation Officer? “While several municipalities and states are creating these positions, the job description, scope of work and relationship to tech projects vary widely,” writes David Raths in Government Technology, which listed 9 recent state and local innovation hires. “Some job descriptions sound like economic development agency executives, charged with promoting job growth and luring businesses to the community.

Other municipalities, like San Francisco, place a strong emphasis on transparency and open data initiatives. Philadelphia’s chief innovation officer position encompasses the chief information officer role, internal business process transformation and startup tech business support.”

Bill Schrier, former CTO for the city of Seattle, describes the CINO’s role as some subset of five major functions:

  • Internal service provider (like a CIO)
  • Trusted advisor
  • Open data and transparency
  • Business process improvements
  • Connecting/encouraging the startup community

In a number of cities, such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Louisville, Ky., and Montgomery County, Md., open data is also a major focus. In Kansas City, Mo., the first home of Google Fiber, a major role for CINO Ashley Hand will be leveraging that resource for innovation, wrote Government Technology. Similarly, newly elected Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke has created a CINO position, which he told the Times Free Press would specifically be to ensure that the city was using its gigabit Internet and wireless technologies “to their utmost.”

In general, states and cities are implementing chief innovation officers to use technology to change underlying rules — not just to simplify business processes, but to completely re-engineer them, Government Technology wrote. “It’s OK to build a one-stop shop for business permitting,” it quotes Jayson White, of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and project manager of the Urban Policy Advisory Group, as saying. “That’s great. But even better is to get at the underlying problem: that the 15 licenses don’t produce much value. So you don’t want to use technology to paper over problems, but to completely re-create services.”

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