The Rise of the Innovation Officer: An Interview with Ashley Z. Hand, Chief Innovation Officer of Kansas City, MO

ARTICLE | Jun 27, 2013


Over the last year, there has been a trend in local government to hire a position to focus on innovation. While the title and responsibilities vary depending on the needs of the organization, the change shows local governments are focusing on innovation. I sat down with Ashley Z. Hand to discuss her new role as Chief Innovation Officer.

What is your background?

 I received my Master of Architecture from the Pratt Institute and Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from McGill University. In addition to years working in sustainable architectural design and city planning, I have worked in marketing and have extensive experience with grassroots organization. Currently, I run a non-profit called Friends of Hale Cook focused to reopen a public elementary school to support enrollment in our struggling urban school district. With a heavy focus on community and parental engagement, we were able to convince the school district to reopen the school next Fall, which is unprecedented and very exciting. My creative skills and experiences working with communities across the country provide me with a unique background in preparation for the chief innovation officer position in Kansas City.

Speaking of your current position, what is a chief innovation officer?

 I’ve discovered from my peers across the country that the position takes on various forms depending on the local government’s needs. In Kansas City, MO, I am focused on internal process improvement and improving civic engagement. Internally, I work with staff from across all departments to identify areas of opportunity. Externally, I work with a group of young professional volunteers on the Mayor’s appointed challenge cabinet to identify new, creative strategies to address challenges facing our city. Overall, the most important role I play is fostering a culture of innovation and supporting successful strategies for change management.

Describe the work process of the challenge cabinet?

The cabinet is made up of young professionals representing various organizations throughout the City. The Mayor created the group to engage young people who may not be part of traditional civic engagement such as commissions and committees. Right now, they are investigating the potential of open data; how to better connect the community to the resources and services they need; and what is needed to create an effective dialogue using outreach strategies and technology to connect the community to the decision makers in City Hall. Currently, we are in the learning phase and they are really delving into what we currently do as an organization. The team has been tasked with developing specific deliverables for the year of their service, including the measures for the success, and we are really excited by some of the strategies they are investigating.

What are you doing to build a culture of innovation?

First, we defined what innovation means and what my role is within the organization. I am as much an instigator as a facilitator – looking to connect people with ideas to resources for implementation.

Second, we are getting people together face to face by engaging people throughout the organization through a brownbag lunch series. Convening people in a shared environment generates fantastic conversations and some of the ideas generated have already triggered immediate outcomes. That can be very satisfying for people.

Third, we survey the participants to determine what are the organization’s challenges and what do they want to learn. Responses have included both internal challenges such as social media and internal communications and external issues such as the progress of the Google Fiber Network in Kansas City. Staffs are citizens of Kansas City and we need to give them information so they can take it back not just to their departments but also to their neighbors and friends.

Fourth, we have created an ideas competition to empower staff to submit ideas to improve processes, save the organization money or time, or enhance the quality of life. Through a formal process, we vet the ideas that come in and provide awards to the best such as lunch with the Mayor.

Fifth, we have also created an “ideas page” on our intranet page to capture ideas and exchange emerging practices form other cities. We have included a link to the Alliance page here.

In the future, we are looking to improve our model. We are interested in the City of Denver’s change management training model that equips a broader population with the skills necessary to implement process improvement.

What should local government know when thinking about creating a chief innovation officer position?

It is important to know the priorities of your local government and where things should change. We have chosen to focus on customer service, performance management, and measurable results so my role is about moving the organization forward, optimizing how we work, integrating technology in our work, and effectively sharing information across the City. We need to identify a longer view to problem solving as an organization, focusing not only on the current operational challenges but where we are going and the needs of the future. Because Chief Innovation Officers are different for every community, it is important to understand what your needs are and identify someone who brings the skills to champion that kind of change.

What do you think the future holds for local government in innovation?

I think we have to. If not now, when? We have to make more happen with fewer resources and governments can serve as a platform for innovation. Innovation is being open to trying things in a new way and, without a little risk, we may never try a better way. Innovation allows us the agility we might not otherwise have. It is critical for us to be open and willing to explore alternative service delivery and partnerships with the community.

What is the role of the Alliance?

I think the Alliance provides a peer network of innovators that we can learn from each other. We can see what ideas other local governments are testing, opening the door for us to try them. It eases the risk of political concerns of trying something new.


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