Does government innovation need its own department?

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, SF city attorney and mayoral candidate Dennis Herrera said, if elected, he would create an innovation department and appoint a Chief Digital Officer to lead the city’s web and social media strategy that embraces open engagement with citizens.

While Herrera is right on target with regards to appointing a CDO, I hope he re-evaluates his idea around creating a department focused specifically on innovation.

The problem with building a designated innovation department is that innovation in itself is relative, hard to measure and a separate division has high potential to succumb to the laws of the bureaucratic silos, never extending beyond the walls of its own members.

It’s inevitable SF will have a CDO when the next mayor is sworn into office. Herrera’s comments gel with conversations I had with him and a number of other candidates prior to SFOpen, many of whom support establishing a senior-level digital role that reports directly to the mayor. Candidates Phil Ting, Joanna Rees and David Chiu all made a point of emphasizing the importance of such a position.

While a CDO position is new to SF government, it’s not a novel concept, and may very well be part of a trend in big cities as innovative leaders realize the value of strategically leveraging the web to efficiently and proactively communicate with larger, tech-savvy populations.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg did this, appointing Rachel Sterne as the city’s first CDO. Since Sterne’s appointment just 7 months ago, the NYC Digital department has released the city’s first Digital Road Map, held a Reinvent NYC.GOV hackathon, launched SMART, among other initiatives with more undoubtedly on the way.

It’s important to note, however, that Bloomberg doesn’t have a department dedicated specifically to innovation within his administration. I imagine he just expects it from everyone.

If government wants to innovate, it must emulate those that do.

Generally considered the epicenter of tech innovation, rarely will you see an innovation department in Silicon Valley. Start-up companies, most of whom have limited budgets, creatively leverage resources hoping to build the next new thing. Innovation poster child Apple consistently designs creative consumer products and, like Bloomberg, surely Steve Jobs just expected everyone to “think different.”

For them, the entire company is their innovation department. It’s in their DNA.

In his interview with the Chronicle, Herrera said, “In order to have a government that inspires people, you need two things. One is results, and No. 2 is transparency.”

I couldn’t agree more, but rather than partition innovation into one department that could become constrained by silos, government must build innovation into its cultural DNA. Leaders must create institutional opportunities for it to prosper. Establish roles with focused objectives and measurable returns, allow room for experimentation and failure and reward creative solutions with positive results. Do this daily.

Whoever is elected the next mayor of San Francisco, I hope he or she establishes an ‘SF Digital’ department with a chief digital officer to lead it.

As far as innovation is concerned, that department should be the entire SF government.

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He advises civic and government-focused businesses, including CivicActions and NuCivic. Other projects include GovPress, Agile Government Leadership and CityCamp. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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