Government Innovation Teams and the Need for Business-Model Clarity

By Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal • October 8, 2013

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Cities want innovation any way they can get it, even if that means moving forward without a strategic approach. Growing in popularity among local governments is the establishment of innovation-focused bodies that exist outside of and between traditional departments. These innovation teams or offices can deliver a number of strategic benefits, such as finding more opportunities for partnership, seeing beyond departmental mandates and overcoming tunnel vision. But without a well-articulated business-plan, governments run the risk of rendering these innovation efforts inconsequential to their operations.

Stepping back, we should first reexamine the traditional model: Entrusting a small innovation team, or perhaps a single person, within a single department or agency with finding opportunities for efficiency and creativity. Working within a single department makes it more difficult to break down the silos that divide departments. For example, geospatial analysis can help cast problems in a new light and facilitate creative solutions. Yet GIS analysts typically reside in a single department, lowering the likelihood that GIS resources and knowledge will spur innovative solutions that address multiple departments' goals simultaneously.

The second model, creating an office of innovation that sits outside of normal departmental structures, is a newer incarnation. Usually this office lies directly under the mayor or other chief executive, so as to give it a top-down push and to keep it free from other departments' mandates and restrictions. The Mayor's Offices of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Philadelphia operate under this model, and their initiatives enjoy the drive and leverage of their mayors. This is also true of the San Francisco's Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation (MOCI), where I worked this past summer -- an experience that revealed both the benefits and pitfalls of the stand-alone innovation office.

MOCI has incredible freedom to coordinate efforts among city departments as well as with local nonprofits and businesses. Yet some departments don't know what services or resources MOCI could provide. Others may not know how to initiate a relationship or a project. With its small, capped budget, MOCI has difficulty offering other departments a clear business model for engagement. As a result, projects may not move forward even when resources or funding may be available.

One solution to this disconnect is to actively clarify the role of an office of innovation. The needed clarity does not concern what such an office does, which should be left open-ended so that the office can remain creative. Rather, an office of innovation must clarify how it operates. This entails building what is essentially a menu of familiar business models. Is the office of innovation a consultancy that can be hired for specific projects? Is it a connector that arranges partnerships within and outside of government more easily and quickly than otherwise possible? Is it a producer that creates off-the-shelf solutions to common departmental problems that can be adopted by, or even purchased by, other jurisdictions? Or is it a combination of these, employing the model that works best for the project at hand?

Clarifying these roles would not be hard, as most existing operations of a typical office of innovation fall under one or more of these models. Government departments already are experienced in hiring consultants, buying off-the-shelf products and building partnerships. Advertising an innovation office as a resource that departments can access through these familiar channels would help generate demand and create a horizontal pull to compliment the top-down push.

By defining how an innovation office can be involved, it becomes clear to other departments what services can be provided and how to work those services into their own processes, workflows and budgets. But while an office like MOCI can address a number of hurdles to innovation inherent to government, such as risk aversion and intra-departmental politics, it also is likely to encounter resistance from departments that see it as in incursion on their specific missions. Defining a protocol for engagement between the innovation office and other departments can help assuage these fears and make the utilization of the office a standard part of government operations.

Because this approach deals with the how of service and product delivery rather than what services and products are delivered, it will not stifle the open-ended creativity that can make an office of innovation so powerful. Rather, bringing this clarity to relationships and roles should improve and increase creativity by making innovation something every department wants, needs and gets.

About the Author

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal is a joint MPP/MUP candidate at the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.