Settling into the C-Suite

Source: GovTech | Adam Stone

Less than a decade ago the chief innovation officer or CINO was viewed by some as a silly job title, just another ill-defined guru/Sherpa/visionary/Jedi thing.


Government CINOs are driving demonstrable change. Anchorage, Alaska, is poised to reap $1 million in revenue thanks to a rewrite of a couple city form letters; Rhode Island schools are driving down absenteeism by texting parents when kids don’t come to school; Arkansas is taking the paper out of government procurement. All these initiatives got their start in the CINO’s office.

In announcing the top data-driven cities of 2018, What Works Cities Executive Director Simone Brody made a telling statement. “All over the country, local governments are jumping into this movement and dramatically improving how their cities operate,” she said.

This comment on the rise of open data serves equally well as a launching point for a broader conversation about the rise of the chief innovation officer. Rooted in data and buoyed by IT advances, the CINO (and the less-common chief transformation officer) increasingly can be spotted on state and local government org charts. Some 40 percent of cities and 42 percent of counties had full-time innovation professionals on staff in 2017, and 49 percent of states reported having an innovation position on the books in 2016, according to surveys of city, county and state IT departments conducted by the Center for Digital Government.*

That makes this an ideal moment to pause and take a deeper look at the role these individuals play in driving government forward.

CINOs are empowering dramatic improvements with better data, better processes and creative collaborations. They’re often underfunded, and often must execute a complex dance with their counterparts in IT — but they are moving the needle.


If we’re going to explore the effectiveness of the CINO, we’d better start by defining the job itself. Ask a half-dozen innovation chiefs what they do for a living and you’ll get half a dozen answers, but some common themes emerge. For most, technology is a helpful tool, rather than a guiding light. Primarily, they say, the CINO is there to drive organizational change.

Miami Director of Innovation and Technology Michael Sarasti, who until May served as CINO, says he’s here to urge process improvements, to leverage best practices from the private sector and to open up civic data. All this results in projects like the Innovation Academy, a monthly event that has so far trained some 100 city employees on “innovation techniques, generally based on lean thinking,” he said. “It’s a two-and-a-half-day course, training about 20 people per cohort. We teach them to see problems in their work area, we teach them a little bit about agile, about user testing and the cycle of experimentation. It’s about them feeling inspired about their work, feeling like they have some sense of control.”

Some innovation chiefs do their work at the highest levels of government, spurring big-picture structural changes. In Arkansas, Chief Transformation Officer Amy Fecher (one of just a few government officials to carry that title) is seeking to streamline processes statewide. She recently led a strategic planning exercise for cabinet-level agencies; she’s working on data center optimization and is also developing a new e-procurement regimen. “We want to see how we can go to less paper and more technology,” she said.

By contrast, others take a more citizen-centric view of the work. Anchorage CINO Brendan Babb wants to put health inspection data online alongside Yelp reviews. He wants to layer real-time bus information on Google Maps. He’s free to do that because of his place in the org chart, which puts him outside the ordinary daily grind. “It’s hard to experiment in government, where people are quick to accuse you of wasting taxpayer money. I can create a space where people can try things,” he said.

Kevin Parker, Director of Innovation, Rhode Island

Others talk about the collaborative nature of innovation. In Rhode Island, Director of Government Innovation Kevin Parker has launched an Innovation League that has so far pulled together some 50 eager innovators from 18 different departments. “These are people who are doing great work, but who need time and space to take their projects further,” he said.

“We come together to re-imagine how we can best meet the needs of users. For example, the group performed a user-shadow exercise at the Department of Health to walk in the shoes of someone coming into the building for the first time: What do they experience and how might we improve it?”

Still others describe innovation s a deeply personal exercise. They see themselves as drivers of change not just at the organizational level, but at the human level.

As CINO of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, Randy Nesbitt invites folks to stand before a 21-foot whiteboard and work through their problems in teams. They get two-and-a-half hours to come up with three or four practical “safe to fail” solutions. Being OK with failure is key to innovation, he says, as is working side by side. “When people sit across the table and brainstorm, then they become competitive,” he said. “When people are shoulder to shoulder facing the same problem, rather than sitting across from one another, it changes the dynamic. Most people don’t think about that.”

In Cary, N.C., Assistant Town Manager and Chief Innovation Officer Dan Ault gives perhaps the most succinct explanation of the CINO’s task. “My No. 1 role is to help people become the best version of themselves that they can be, to achieve whatever they want to achieve in their jobs,” he said. “In a municipal organization, you can’t always do everything, but if you are passionate about public service, I want to help you tap into that and realize that passion.”


These CINOs come to the table with big vision … and limited resources. Most have no dedicated budget for “innovation,” and may rely on grants or else piggyback on funds allocated in support of specific agency projects.

Money isn’t a prerequisite for innovation, but it helps. Sarasti, for instance, has a small discretionary fund of $50,000 that he uses for targeted projects. Say a useful app emerges from a hack-a-thon: He might spend $5,000 to adapt it for use in city systems.

Last year, Babb did a review of government form letters, including an animal control letter about dog registration and a library overdue notice. He spent $12,000 to prototype changes, and this convinced the Treasury to spend $55,000 on broader revisions that are expected to result in $1 million in revenue from previously uncollected fines. Cities will invest, “but it helps if you can do initiatives that show a direct financial return,” he said.

Money isn’t the only tool in the CINO toolbox, however.

Amy Fecher, Chief Transformation Officer, Arkansas

Ault says his strategic partnerships with companies like Salesforce, Box and Microsoft are key. “We are evolving more to a platform-based approach, and their enterprise platforms are what will power the city. This is what gives us the ability to configure and to build and to get updates, which in turn allows city employees to truly get the information they need when they need it,” he said.

More than just vendor relationships, these are true partnerships, in the sense that both sides benefit from their combined efforts. “We are the best lab for molding these products: We have so many different needs, so many different processes. We are working on the front lines, so it becomes a matter of mutual success. They need people like us to pioneer these things, to show that these things work,” he said.

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