Civic Innovation: An Introduction

“So, what exactly do you do at City Hall?”

This question is always asked at conferences, events, or at parties. Usually as a precursor or follow-up to my elevator pitch —

“I’m a civic innovator, I bring best practices and new ways of thinking to City Hall operations. I work on special projects relating to open data, digital engagement strategies, and improve the effectiveness of service delivery.”

Responses range from: “You have a lot of job security don’t you?” to “What does that even mean?!” Reactions are usually piqued interest or boredom.

The job of innovation in government is one of many shapes, sizes, and hats. As a self-proclaimed civic innovator (in all honesty, internally to City Hall I am simply just another Management Analyst II), I have been fortunate to have been assigned to special projects due to my drive (Who am I kidding! It’s only because I’m of the younger generation and use the intertubes and the Google). It began in 2010, by being asked to lead Richmond’s application for the Google Fiber for Communities competition. This coincided with my attendance to Govloop’s inaugural Next Generation of Government Summitin July that same year. My appetite for innovation, progress, and modernizing government was whetted. In September 2010, I was introduced to the Gov 2.0 Summit by Tim O’Reilly, the creator of the “government as a platform” initiative nationwide. Then it was off to the races: Open Data,Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Code for America, and many others. I quickly became enamored with watching how the rest of the country was tackling key social problems and challenges with openness, transparency, and collaboration. My network grew to include fellow innovators in City Hall’s in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Fran. I badly wanted to bring this culture to my city. But how? Where do I start?

I first had to label this role for government, catered to my city. Nationally, Chief Innovation Officers were brand new title, and in my city, this title would be impossible to propose as I was far too young to have the title of Chief. Over the next year I began to map out the role of innovation within government, research key initiatives, align them with current list of projects and initiatives and outlined how this new role would be beneficial. I began to see two words commonly used:

Civic — as relating to a city and its administration

Innovation — ways in which to make government suck less

So a title that had been thrown around loosely nationally began to grow legs of purpose, value and intention and thus was created:

Civic Innovator — a person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products relating to a city and its administration (*special thanks to Jeff Friedman, former director of Philly’s Office of New Urban Mechanics for helping coin the term).

This role is not narrowed down to a specific function or purpose, but rather injecting a new way of thinking to how government conducts business as usual. Innovation is needed at all levels, and isn’t specifically about technology or open data. It transcends the normal roles and titles of government and includes building organizational value for thinking outside the proverbial box of bureaucracy. Knocking down those walls to include not only the aforementioned initiatives, but also applying them to projects relating to improving customer service, combating the generational effects of poverty, social media and digital strategies, and improving low-incomes access and utilization of health and medical services.

Thus began the journey of creating what usually becomes either a fleeting 45 seconds of importance at a dinner party or a long drawn out evening of long conversation about how to improve government and quality of life for all. As I explain to people what exactly I do for work, I now have an answer of Civic Innovator (also synonymous with “Garbage Man”, but thats another blog post). Well, I at least have a statement that leads to an interesting conversation depending on their desire, knowledge or ability to continue.

The following posts dive into my experiences, philosophy and approach to being a Civic Innovator. Expressing my point of view of whats possible, approaches, lessons learned, and best practices.

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