Keeping Austin Weird — with a Chief Innovation Officer

Data and budget demands have Austin searching for a new creative engine.

Chief innovation officers are popping up in cities across the United States. Ever-shrinking budgets, the flood of data and the demand for transparency are just a few reasons that local governments are bringing in talented executives to encourage new and different thinking.

Austin, Texas, has announced plans to hire a chief innovation officer, and they’re hoping to bring someone on board by October, according to Government Technology. Reporter Sarah Rich spoke to Howard Lazarus, Austin’s director of public works, about the opportunity:

One of the major roles of the future innovation officer will be to serve as a connector between people with ideas and people with ways to get things done, Lazarus said. But right now, the city is making sure the Office of Innovation isn't too narrowly defined to ensure the recruitment remains as broad as possible.

“We’re looking for someone who is intuitive and inherently creative,” Lazarus said.

Like other innovation officers in the public sector, Austin’s chief innovation officer will work across city departments in an effort to break down silos, but also have a more outward-facing relationship with the community, helping to develop relationships between the city and universities and other individuals in the tech community.

As part of their plan to hire an innovation officer, city staff sat down to discuss pain points. This helped them shape a vision for innovation in Austin:

  1. Innovation is many things, and you can’t expect to be all of them all at once. According to [Doug Matthews, Austin’s chief communication director], it’s important to create a system that reflects the organization’s expectations and character as well as its executive and elected leaders.
  2. You can’t expect to launch an innovation initiative if you don’t have a strategy for addressing the organizational culture concurrently.
  3. Money for projects isn’t as important as you might think. Research showed Austin that what employees need most are time and support from management and supervisors.
  4. The desire to try new innovations is already present throughout your organization — staff members are just waiting to be asked.
  5. There’s significant interest within the community to contribute — they just don’t know where to go. Defining a “front door” for them to knock on is a critical first step.

Austin joins a growing number of local governments with chief innovation officers. Here is a partial list from Government Technology:

  • Adel Ebeid, chief innovation officer, Philadelphia
  • Jack Elsey, chief of innovation and incubation, Chicago Public Schools
  • Brett Goldstein, CIO and commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology, Chicago
  • Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, co-chairs for the Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston
  • Rahul Merchant, chief information and innovation officer, New York City
  • Jay Nath, chief innovation officer, city and county of San Francisco
  • Tony Parham, government innovation officer, Massachusetts
  • Michael Powell, chief innovation officer, Maryland
  • Ted Smith, chief of economic growth and innovation, Louisville, Ky., Metro Government

To learn more about how local governments are powering innovation, check out this video interview with New York City’s chief digital officer Rachel Haot.

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Jun 06 2013