Creating Innovation Offices That Work

A new report, “A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work,” details the models, methods, and metrics of how government agencies are incorporating innovation into their bureaucracies.

Innovation offices are being established by many governments—including cities (Austin, Philadelphia, Chicago), states (Maryland, Colorado, and Pennsylvania), and federal agencies (NARA, HHS, State Department).  But not all offices are organized in the same way, and not all have the same mission or metrics.  A new report, “A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work,” by Rachel Burstein and Alyssa Black detail how these various innovation groups fall into structural categories and how their success metrics map to their missions.


The authors identified six basic structures, or models, of innovation offices, noting that many offices combined two more or more of these models: laboratory, facilitator, advisor, tech build-out, liaison, and sponsored.

Model Description Example
Laboratory Autonomous group charged with developing new technologies, products, fixes, or programs, sometimes in partnership with other groups, often
with public face
New Urban Mechanics, Boston and Philadelphia; and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services IDEA Lab
Facilitator One person or small group working to convene government departments on internal improvements or external projects Governor’s Innovation Office, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; and Chief Innovation Officer, Kansas City
Advisor Small autonomous group or single person within government who provides departments with innovation expertise, assistance, and leadership on specific projects Chief Innovation Officer, U.S. Department of Labor
Technology Build-Out Innovation offices specifically tied to a technology function that regard technology as both a tool for encouraging innovation as well as the innovation itself Chief Innovation Officer, City of Philadelphia; and Chief Innovation Technology Officer, City of Los Angeles
Liaison Groups that reach out to designated communities outside of government, most often to the business community Chief Innovation Officer, City of Davis; and Colorado Innovation Network
Sponsored Innovation offices sponsored in whole or in part by third parties—universities, businesses, nonprofit organizations, philanthropic foundations or others Office of New Urban Mechanics, Utah Valley University


Whichever model was created, the authors found that successful innovation offices implemented these keys:

  1. Commit to supplying real resources.
  2. Choose leaders carefully, and invest in and provide appropriate support to those leaders.
  3. Create a specific mission tied to specific impacts.
  4. Communicate effectively with internal and external partners throughout the innovation lifecycle.
  5. Find allies within government and committed partners outside of government.
  6. Establish an innovation process from the outset, even if the exact details and specific projects change over time.
  7. Seize opportunities to share lessons and information emerging from government innovation offices through both formal and informal networks.


Noting that innovation offices have two distinct areas of influence – internal and external activities – the report details metrics that can be used to assess how successful the offices are.  For internal innovation efforts, including achieving greater collaboration between departments; greater efficiency in government processes and possible allocation of saved dollars to new projects; and a more systematized processes and funding opportunities for innovative projects, the authors recommend measuring:

  • Number of jointly proposed and executed projects
  • Projections of cost saved over time, even with possible initial spending increases
  • Number of projects that are evaluated mid-course and changed or cancelled as a result
  • Combined value of monetary and in-kind support for innovation-specific projects across the government entity
  • Diversity of skill sets identified on job descriptions as compared with the past

For external activities, such as achieving an improved relationship between public and government; an improved relationship between business/organizations and government; greater transparency in government decision-making; and greater accommodation of community need in service development and deployment, the authors suggest measuring:

  • Increasing scores on customer satisfaction surveys for targeted departments
  • Number of businesses and organizations applying to partner with government entity compared to the past
  • Number and value of monetary and in-kind donations from businesses and organizations across the government entity
  • Number of downloads, views, data manipulation or other means of accessing government-supplied information
  • Number of projects changed, abandoned, or reassessed as a result of partner comment

Innovating Innovation

The future of innovation may look nothing like its past, but government leaders who are tasked with establishing innovation offices have a great deal to learn from their present configuration, and “A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work” is an invaluable resource in surveying the current topography.

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bonnie cornwall

I had hoped you would include information on diffusion of innovation theory and how that model helps to guide development of programs. The Ag Extension Service and later the Energy Extension Service (US Dept of Energy) put the theory in practice as they developed technical assistance