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Austin's Getting a Chief Innovation Officer. (So What the Heck Does That Mean?)

Callie Hernandez for KUT News
Callie Hernandez for KUT
Austin is adding a new Innovation Office, but the actual work of the office is yet to be defined.

The City of Austin will soon name a leader for its newly created Innovation Office.

So what exactly will this person do – and does Austin need one?

Innovation – like sustainability, transparency, and social responsibility – are buzzwords the public sector is appropriating from the business world. Austin established its own Office of Sustainability in 2010.

With its minting of a Chief Innovation Officer, the city joins over ten U.S. municipalities and states with their own CIO. The city has set aside a total of $320,000 for the Innovation Office. That included $122,000 for the CIO’s salary, $64,000 to hire an analyst as a second staff member, and $114,000 for an operating budget.

“The idea for the Chief Innovation Officer came from the City Manager, as well as certain council members’ offices,” says Patricia Fraga, a marketing manager for the City of Austin. She says the creation of the office was not motivated by a specific need or cause.

“The city needed to create a position that could be a conduit between the city and members outside the city – such as businesses, universities and other entities – to find solutions to solve certain civic and government challenges,” Fraga says.

Citizens can meet Austin’s three CIO finalists tonight, Nov. 18, 5:30 - 7 p.m. at the Ruiz Branch Library. The candidates are:

  • Jon Kolko, Vice President of Production Innovation and Design at MyEdu and Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design
  • Doug Matthews, Chief Communications Director, Office of the City Manager at the City of Austin
  • Kerry O’Connor, Innovation Catalyst, Research and Design Center, Executive Secretariat, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of State

The duties of the office were vague when the city introduced the innovation concept in May 2013. The exact work of the CIO remains undefined. This lack of definition is partly inherent to the position of CIO.

As explained by media and research company Government Technology, most cities with CIOs create these positions to focus on ever-changing challenges and developments in technology – giving the CIO some latitude in defining the parameters of their job.

Austin's CIO will certainly put an emphasis on leveraging technology to solve issues. However, Austin already touts a robust tech industry that spans large corporations, scrappy startups, and civic-oriented projects.

Whether a CIO can leverage that existing resource remains to be seen. This article from a researcher with the California Civic Innovation Projectdashes the idea of CIOs. It argues that while cities hope CIOs will bring quick and sweeping change to government, they could instead be resource drainers that don’t enact significant change.

But the city sounds confident in the Office of Innovation’s return on investment.

"As a whole, it is just innovative solutions to solve certain challenges the community faces,” says Fraga, “be it transportation, funding, or other problems that collaboration with outside entities could solve.”

Carrie Powell is a news intern covering stories for the KUT News blog. Originally hailing from Ohio, Carrie entered the world of public radio through WGTE FM 91 in Toledo. Having recently concluded a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA, Carrie is interested in news, community, and storytelling.
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