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Accounting For The Rise of The State And Local Government Chief Innovation Officer

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian Hutcheson
November 16, 2019

Innovation is nothing new. The desire to make improvements is an intrinsically human motivation that characterizes us as a species. Yet it is only within the last decade in the United States. that organizations have created positions charged solely with directing innovation. The number of Chief Innovation Officers (CINOs) working in state and local governments has proliferated since 2011 through today when there are dozens of these officers promoting innovation in jurisdictions across the country.

The narrative behind what induced the first wave of state and local CINOs can be constructed by examining the economic setting at the time and the decisions that governments made within it. Whether it was the condition of the United States economy in the early days of recession recovery, lessons learned from corporate America or an interest in promoting economic development, the circumstances that incentivized the creation of these positions have as much to do with economics as they do with a desire for disruption.

The state and local government CINO

The tale of the state and local government CINO begins with a conversation between then Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, and his future CINO Bryan Sivak, who suggested the title despite O’Malley’s protest that it, “Sounded kind of flaky,” as quoted in Jeffrey Stinson’s February 6, 2015 article for Government Technology. Sivak’s 2011 appointment as Maryland’s CINO was possibly the first of its kind in the United States. There would be several to follow in states such as Colorado and Massachusetts, major cities like Chicago and San Antonio, and some county governments including Cuyahoga County, Ohio and Montgomery County, MD. Although most CINOs work under some variation of the same title, the focus of their efforts varies according to the mandate they are given by the executive who must ultimately answer for the disruption these officers must instigate.

Opportunities in recovery

The timing of the initial wave of state and local CINOs in the early 2010s is illuminating when investigating the conditions that spurred this trend. By the time Bryan Sivak was settling into his role as Maryland’s first CINO in 2011, the American economy was nearly two years removed from the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Organizations were beginning to recognize an oncoming economic recovery and were equipped with a new perspective that exposed the consequences of obedience to the conventions of doing business. Governments found themselves in a setting that encouraged organizational reform with a reasonable assurance that the resources for it would soon be available. Funding a new executive position with an open-ended mission to initiate change represents an opportunistic risk for governments nurtured by the condition of the United States economy in the early stages of economic recovery.        

Corporate copying

The old adage that government is X number of years behind the private sector in adopting new industry trends is not incorrect when it comes to CINOs, but the lag time is perhaps less concerning. In a 2013 article for Research-Technology Management titled, “The Role of the Chief Innovation Officer,” author Jane Stevenson cites the emergence of the corporate CINO, “Over the last five or seven years,” or around 2006-2008. Sivak’s hiring in Maryland would come barely five years after the rise of this trend in the private sector. A former tech executive, Sivak undoubtedly drew on his corporate experience with innovation during his time in Annapolis. In looking to the business world as a model for directing innovation, state and local governments were influenced by trends in the American economic landscape and the advancements fostered by corporate competition. The decision to hire government CINOs therefore draws its inspiration from the necessity that corporations saw in creating these positions in order to remain competitive.      

Innovating for prosperity

Just as innovation manifests differently across times and places, state and local CINOs tackle different challenges in their respective organizations, with some focused more internally on change within and others more externally towards their communities. Instances of the latter contain some apparent examples of the economic calculations that lead to the rise of the government CINO, with the economic growth that the position can help catalyze. In Kansas City, MO., the role of the CINO has been largely externally focused on the advancement of Smart City technologies. Kansas City’s first CINO, Bob Bennett, listed the desire to, “Support entrepreneurship and economic development,” as one of the three core objectives of his Smart City program. The prosperity that innovation in the urban landscape can bring highlights the role of the CINO as an economic change agent, not unlike a more traditional economic development director.

Contrary to its reputation as rule-bound and change-resistant, government is making efforts to break its tether to bureaucratic convention. The rise of the state and local CINO is one of the most visible developments in this front. The story behind what gave rise to this trend can be told with a government protagonist as an economic actor behaving in a manner consistent with its character. Such a casting makes for a more believable tale that is hopefully no less compelling.   


Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Management & Budget Analyst for the City of Oklahoma City and a member of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter: ihutch01

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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