Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Curator? And Does Your City Need One?

Several cities have added Chief Innovation Officers to their teams.  For example, in San Francisco, Jay Nath was Appointed by San Francisco Mayor Lee to “introduce new ideas and approaches to make city government more transparent, efficient and focused on our customers — San Francisco residents, businesses and visitors. The chief innovation officer will make sure technology is a driver of change in city government and a job creator.” That is certainly a specific role for a innovator, and one that is understandably central to San Francisco’s unique mission to be the quintessential 2.0 city.  As a result of this emphasis and focus, San Francisco has taken the lead in numerous technological innovations, including acting as the home of Code for America, creation of the Open Cloud, and the first American city to begin an experiment in dynamic parking, in which, through the use of in-street sensors, on-street parking prices change depending on supply and demand.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter also appointed a Chief Innovation Officer, Adel Ebeid, formerly of the State of New Jersey.  This role looks somewhat different than the front-facing, forward-looking role in San Francisco.  In Philadelphia, Ebeid replaces a previous executive who was IT Director, overseeing an apparently obsolete technology infrastructure.  Further comments from Ebeid seem to focus on using technology to address specific challenges within the city’s inner workings, like bringing the IP system up to date and creating citizen services that allow simple tasks to be performed by customers on-line.  There is also a sense that there will be a focus in his tenure on furthering the cause of technology and open-government in Philly as the role progresses.  But clearly, these are two very different versions of Chief Technology Officers.

So should your city add such a person?  Apparently, it’s becoming “all the rage” according to a new article in Atlantic Cities. These roles really serve two masters: “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.”  In other words, technology is here, and it can clearly make a difference.  Customers are and should be excited about what this innovation portends for the delivery of municipal services.  But to hire a person whose role is simply to legitimize “vigilante” municipal app-writing seems odd. Yes, there are hackers — and there are millions of folks utilizing public data to create interesting functions.  Does that require a Sheriff to patrol?  That’s less clear.  Perhaps there is a genuine role for a Chief Innovation Officer — not in the role of either of these examples.  In our opinion, the ideal C. In.O. is a curator.  Someone who is charged with scouring the landscape for opportunities and innovations that can better serve customers, add efficiency, reduce costs or solve problems through a combination of private/public and technological partnership. That might include vetting hacked apps or soliciting their design; it might also include procuring off-the-shelf software to add openness to government activities.  And it might include funding software development that might eventually be sale-able, with a percentage owned by the municipality.   Those would all fall under the purview of the Chief Curator. We may be biased though, since that us also the mission of S4C!