City Offices of Innovation
Susan Crawford and Dana Walters have an important paper out that looks at Boston’s constituent relationship management (CRM) system, which coordinates government responses to citizen inquiries. The paper also examines the role of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which was established by Mayor Menino to promote civic innovation and participatory urbanism. In 2012 a sister Office of New Urban Mechanics was established in Philadelphia. InnovateSF is another so-called “innovation office” in San Francisco, which has launched a Code for America-like fellows program. Last year, the city of Austin, Texas approved funding for its own office of innovation. New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn has promised to establish an innovation office if elected.
The trend is also international. In Buenos Aires, Mayor Macri established “Digital BA,” an innovation office with teams dedicated to e-government, open government, and new media. And just a few months ago, Mexico City’s new mayor appointed the first city manager as well as the first office of innovation, the “Laboratory for the City,” which is modeled on Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and is one of three international partners of Code for America. Yesterday, Mexico City’s Lab for the City announced their first class of “citizen programmers.” (Disclosure: I was on the judging committee.) Each of these six fellows will spend nine months embedded in a city agency to develop a specific project.
Rachel Burstein of the California Civic Innovation project argues that not every city needs an innovation office. She points out that most of these offices work on short-term interventions instead of long-term change, and that, despite attracting significant media coverage, their budgets are more limited in scope than their rhetoric:
During its first year of operation, San Francisco’s innovation office had a budget of $420,000, of which $350,000 was allocated for staff. While better than nothing, this is a paltry sum with which to alter the structural impediments to innovation in city government—say, employees’ reluctance to embrace new approaches or legal requirements that prevent speedy adoption of new ways of doing things.
But even with limited resources, the paper by Crawford and Walters shows how an office of innovation can bring transformative changes to the nuts and bolts of city administration if certain conditions are in place. Crawford outlines those most important conditions in a blog post that also provides context into how the paper came about. This is exactly what we need to see more of in our field: ethnographers who spend time observing how city bureaucracies actually function, identify bright spots and bottlenecks, and pointing out the key intervention points and necessary conditions to bring about significant change.
- Sept 16 – 18 — OK Festival, Geneva
- Sept 25 – 27 — Ciudades Digitales, Ecuador
- Oct 7 – 9 — CityLab, New York
- Oct 12 – 16 Global Investigative Journalism Conference, Rio de Janeiro
- Oct 30 – Nov 1 — OGP, London