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.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at

5 Responses

  1. I would hope part of the charge of an innovation office would be to cultivate internal programs to create an environment of innovation throughout the government. One big difference between government and private industry (since you made the parallel) is that it’s easier for companies to hire people who strongly wish to innovate, and to let go employees who lack that vision. Due to civil service rules in government, and hiring freezes in many jurisdictions, we have to work with who we have. An innovation office designed to cultivate an innovative atmosphere, vet staff ideas and administer award programs might help inject the existing workforce with the innovation bug =) 

  2. None

    It already has one..  in most agencies this should be the CTO.  However it seems the journalists and New Media specialists are the new experts in innovation..  to bad few have a background in IT, infosec and privacy.

  3. As I said on Facebook last night, having a Department of Innovation is like having a Department of Doing a Good Job. Everybody should work on doing a good job in government, and everybody should work on being innovative. If you task one department with being innovative, the result will be bureaucratic friction: nobody likes being told what to do, particularly by people who don’t understand the nuts and bolts of a situation from being on the front line. I get what you’re saying, Kristy, but I think the role of fostering innovation comes from the culture set by the leadership team: you don’t need an entire department for that.

  4. Barry Hooper

    SF has this position today. From In his more recent role as Director of Innovation [Jay Nath] led an effort to make San Francisco the first large city in the nation to use Twitter as a new channel for taking public requests. This idea soon led to an effort to establish an international standard for 311 services allowing interoperability with third-party applications. As a result there are nowdozens of apps available and many more in the pipeline. He is now focused on growing adoption of Open311. His efforts have yielded two large players, Lagan and Microsoft partner ISC to adopt Open311.Earlier this year, Jay Nath established the nation’s first open source software policy for city government, and in 2010 Mr. Nath authored Open Data Legislation requiring City departments to make all non-confidential datasets under their authority available on, the city’s one stop web site for government data. Mr. Nath launched DataSF in August 2009 using open source technology taking only three months from idea to go-live. The initial phase of DataSF includes nearly 200 datasets, from a range of city departments, including Police, Public Works, and the Municipal Transportation Agency. More than 60 software applications have already been created from the City’s data and are featured in the DataSF App Showcase. This includes San Francisco Crimespotting, an interactive crime map, EcoFinder, an iPhone app that helps residents recycle, and Routesy, an app that helps people find their way around the Bay Area’s transit systems.


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