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.


  • Javier Ruiz with a fantastic teaser to a panel he’ll be facilitating at the Open Government Partnership annual event on the “thorny issues” of open government.
  • Speaking of the OGP, they announced the Bright Spots Competition to identify and showcase open government initiatives. Winners will be invited to present their initiatives on the main stage at the upcoming Annual Summit. Deadline: September 9.
  • New York State has launched a Health Data portal based on Socrata, and they’ve published a handy guide to help users get started. Too often governments publish data without helping explain the context and potential uses of the data.
  • Susanah Vila of the engine room has begun a helpful spreadsheet of Transparency and Accountability Resources & Initiatives. The real content is on tabs 2, 3, and 4. This is a helpful complementary effort to the The Crowdsourced International Civic, Democratic and Transparency Website List, which is maintained by mySociety.
  • Code for America has launched Streetmix, a new platform that, in the words of Matt Bevilcqua, lets you “live out your urban planning god complex.” Prior to Streetmix, urban idealists like Mexico City’s Karina Licea had to use Photoshop and AutoCAD programs to share their visions of urban planning. Below is an image by Licea of what the Mexico City thoroughfare División del Norte could become, followed by what it looks like today.
  • The Wall Street Journal takes a look at what Chicago and other US cities are doing to “leverage data for public purpose.”
  • The World Bank’s Tiago Peixoto points us to two interesting studies. First, the (mostly positive) effects of participatory budgeting on health outcomes — and, specifically, infant mortality — in Brazil. Second, a study on the rise and impact of e-petitions in the UK. Notably, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute found that, of the 20,000 e-petitions submitted to the official UK site, only 0.1 percent attained the 100,000 required signatures to prompt a parliamentary debate. According to the researchers, “after 24 hours, a petition’s fate is virtually set.”
  • Finally, if you have too much time on your hands and you just can’t get enough news about open government and civic innovation, then you’ll surely enjoy GovLab’s weekly Editiorial Meeting Links, Nancy Scola’s Rise and Shine daily report at Next City, Sunlight Foundation’s daily 2Day in #OpenGov digest, Opening Parliament’s weekly news update, and TechPresident’s weekly WeGov newsletter.
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    Upcoming Events

    A much more thorough calendar of international open government events is maintained by Sunlight Foundation. The Gov Lab has just launched a new calendar of their own.