Weaving Innovation into the Fabric of Bureaucracy

Dedicated innovation offices are popping up at every level of government. A new report looks at where they are and what they're doing.
October 28, 2014
By John M. Kamensky  |  Contributor
John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

When 38 inches of snow buried Boston in 2011, most residents dug out their sidewalks. But no one dug out the fire hydrants so that fire trucks could find them. Today, however, Boston is prepared, courtesy of an innovative program in which citizens can "adopt" a hydrant and agree to be responsible for digging it out in a snowstorm.

That innovation was spawned via the nonprofit Code for America, but today, cities, states and even federal agencies are creating dedicated innovation offices with the goal of weaving innovation into the fabric of bureaucracy. But what do these offices do? And are they doing anything useful?

A new IBM Center for the Business of Government report, A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work, examines dozens of innovation-office initiatives and distills patterns and best practices that can help government executives decide if this is just hype or if it could be a worthwhile approach for their organizations. "In many cases, these offices are doing extraordinary work and are staffed by visionary leaders," say the report's authors, Rachel Burstein and Alissa Black. But they caution that these efforts "must be structured, staffed, and resourced appropriately and thoughtfully."

The authors observe that there are two broad types of missions that have evolved among government innovation offices, some of which incorporate a mix of the two: those focused on impacting the larger community and those aimed at producing impacts within government.

Externally-facing innovation offices: These attempt to engage the public, oftentimes on a specific issue, or to leverage strategic partnerships with the private or nonprofit sectors.

In Memphis, for example, Mayor A.C. Wharton has identified a few initial priorities for the city's innovation delivery team to focus on. These include reducing handgun violence and encouraging economic vitality in specific neighborhoods. Once the team achieves measureable improvements in these areas, the city plans to expand its innovation-delivery approach to other mayoral priorities.

Similarly, Montgomery County, Md.'s Innovation Program bills itself as a "laboratory for civic improvement." In addition to sponsoring activities that support innovation throughout the county government, it pilots a variety of projects to improve residents' lives. One recent example is an assistive-technology project to help students with autism.

Internally-facing innovation offices: These typically are tasked with creating money-saving efficiencies or promoting a culture of innovation among public employees.

For example, the governor of Pennsylvania's Innovation Office, led by Joe Deklinski, focuses on efficiency and productivity improvements in state government operations. Deklinski works with a small staff to build cross-departmental teams of agency staffers and claims to have achieved $500 million in savings. One example: a coordination project to reduce the cost of file shipments among Human Relations Commission offices across the state.

In Kansas City, the chief innovation officer, Ashley Hand, is charged with creating a culture change in government and enabling more efficient and effective service delivery. "She builds innovation teams from across the city's departments around specific initiatives and offers additional capacity and perspective to the city and teams through initiatives like a young professionals' cabinet," the report's authors note.

They also observe that successful offices have developed metrics that can be used to measure (or justify) their successes. These go beyond dollar savings to include factors such as the number of projects jointly delivered between different city or nonprofit organizations, the value of in-kind or other support received from partnering organizations, increases in transportation, improved service delivery, and improvement in relationships with citizens and the business community.

In addition to outlining a series of models that have evolved as cities, states, and federal agencies appoint chief innovation officers or created innovation offices, Burstein and Black identify some keys to successfully leading in these various roles. They include: ensuring a clear mission, choosing the right champions to lead the effort, finding allies and establishing a defined process.

The report concludes with an inventory of and contacts for all of the innovation programs the authors could identify as of September 2014 -- federal, state, and local. That's likely to be a useful tool for public leaders looking to turn innovation into a core function of their governments.