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Bridging Distant Worlds: Innovation in the Civic Space

a digital white paper by Public Innovation

3. Civic Innovation Structures

A working definition of civic innovation will help set the context for how myriad diverse structures support the activity in practice. Noted technology journalist and open government advocate Alex Howard defines civic innovation of civic as follows:

“[A] new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.”

Following an environmental scan, we identify the following eight models that serve as platforms for civic innovation:

  1. Offices of Innovation
  2. Public Sector Innovation Labs
  3. In-House Delivery Units
  4. Advisory Bodies
  5. External Capacity Builders
  6. Community Based Civic Technology Organizations
  7. Incubators, Accelerators and Entrepreneurs-in-Residence
  8. Innovation Funds and Civic Crowdfunding

It is important to note that these models are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the communities that excel in this space have been able to successfully fuse many of these models together to form civic innovation ecosystems. What follows is a description of each type of model and examples of their application.

3.1 Offices of Innovation

Offices of Innovation are typically established at the municipal level of government and led by Chief Innovation Officers. The role of these offices may cover a range of responsibilities, including citizen engagement and information technology.

White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

The White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (SICP) has a three-prong focus: (1) service, (2) solutions, and (3) partnerships. Their focus on community solutions supports innovation at the local level through challenges and innovation funds. SICP explicitly recognizes the value of bottom-up solutions at the community level. Similarly, the office shares best practices related to impact measurement and incentivizes evidence-based strategies.

City of Riverside, CA

Lea Deesing is Riverside’s Chief Innovation Officer and primarily focuses on information technology functions in the city. According to Deesig:

“Using the word ‘innovation’ makes the position a superset of the typical Chief Information Officer. It says, ‘We know you can manage information, but we want more. We want you to partner with the organization to drive innovative change throughout the organization, the community and beyond.’”

She is transforming the way citizens interact with government with a new transparency and engagement portal, Engage Riverside.

City of Davis, CA

Our region’s own Rob White was appointed to the position of Chief Innovation Officer at the City of Davis in March 2013 with a specific mandate to bolster local economic development. Coming from the City of Livermore, White has a background in leveraging the capacity of university research to catalyze private sector job creation and economic activity. In this role, he’s currently leading efforts to create an innovation park that would become the home of future technology companies.

3.2 Public Sector Innovation Labs

Public Sector Innovation Labs are places for the government and civil society to experiment and validate new methods of interaction. These are safe spaces to mitigate risk in an “authorizing environment” outside of the traditional constraints of public agencies.

According to Public and Collaborative NYC, a program at the the Parsons DESIS Lab at the New School in New York City:

“A Government Innovation Lab is a specific type of Public Innovation Place characterized by a direct connection with the public sector and created to tackle complex challenges that more traditional governmental structures seek to resolve. Government Innovation Labs experiment with and propose innovative public services and policies, while at the same time, try to reform and change the way government operates.”

Government’s role with these labs varies across a continuum that comprises owner, funder, co-funder, partner, client, and endorser.

San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Innovation

One of the most well known innovation labs is the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation (SFMOCI), led by Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath. The office employs approximately six staff and works with mayoral leadership, city departments, and city residents. Although its project portfolio is continuously evolving based on potential for impact, SFMOCI has pursued projects related to crowdsourcing, entrepreneurship, and urban prototyping.


MindLab is an innovation lab within the Danish government led by Christian Bason, author of the the book Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society. Bason is an avid proponent of using design thinking to empathize with citizens and the touchpoints they use to interact with government. Similarly, he advocates for co-creating policies and co-producing services with people, not just for people. MindLab is a partnership between three ministries and one municipality, and hires ethnographers and service designers to improve the citizen experience.

Public Service Launchpad

The Public Service Launchpad is a partnership between Solve and FutureGov in the United Kingdom, and offers seed funding and startup support for intrapraneurs who want to further develop and scale their projects. Intrapraneurship is an activity pursued by change agents within organizations who have promising ideas and the capacity to develop, test, launch, and scale new initiatives within their organizations. The Launchpad also supports the creation of new social enterprises that are key partners with government from the outside.

3.3 In-House Delivery Units

In-House Delivery Units focus on improving the delivery of public services through better performance. This can involve rapid prototyping, performance management, and the implementation of transformation efforts.

Government Digital Service and 18F

Both the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and the United States’ 18F were born out of information technology project failures and the changing expectations of citizens around the delivery of digital services. 18F is literally a startup within the federal government’s General Services Administration and is rapidly expanding. According the the organization’s website:

“18F builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves.”

The organization has a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) policy. While 18F is more focused on discrete projects, GDS is building out the entire UK government as a unified platform with a consistent look and feel.

Innovation Delivery Teams

In July 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies committed $24 million to solving urban challenges in partnership with mayors across the country. These resources were allocated to Innovation Delivery Teams structured to deliver new solutions to old problems on the ground.

3.4 Advisory Bodies

Advisory bodies exist to advise policymakers and administrators with outside knowledge about emerging topics or highly technical policy issues. While the idea is not new, such bodies tackling the emergent topic of civic innovation is relatively new.


LA2050 is an effort to engage the public in shaping the future of Los Angeles. The project is funded and led by the Goldhirsh Foundation, and convenes stakeholders to set goals and measure progress through a curated set of quality of life indicators. LA2050’s Academic Advisory Committee is a body that provides ongoing consultation regarding these indicators. The initiative also provides grants to help LA achieve its vision.

Maryland Open Data Council

In April 2014, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed Senate Bill 644, creating the Maryland Council on Open Data. The Council reports to the Maryland Legislature and is charged with recommending legislation to ensure the continued implementation of the state’s open data policy.

SACOG’s Innovation Task Force

Our own Sacramento Area Council of Governments established an Innovation Task Force that comprises a subset of the organization’s board of directors. Previously known as the Shared Services and New Initiatives Task Force, the group explores best practices among other regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations across the country and pursues opportunities to improve efficiencies and collaborate toward shared goals across jurisdictions.

3.5 External Capacity Builders

External capacity builders help organizations develop their internal innovation capacity, typically on a limited-term basis. These capacity builders bring new knowledge, ideas, methods, people, and tools to approach old problems in new ways.

Code for America’s Fellowship and Peer Network

Code for America (CfA) is a leading capacity builder that helps local governments innovate, primarily through their Fellowship and Peer Network programs. The Fellowship is a competitive program for cities to bring in a multi-disciplinary team of civic technologists who spend a year working with city officials on a set of discrete projects to improve service delivery and internal operations. Similarly, the CfA Peer Network is a network for government staff to engage in knowledge sharing and trainings that diffuse civic innovation practices.

Living Cities

Living Cities specializes in forging and advising cross-sector partnerships to improve the lives of low income people and the cities they live in. In addition to co-facilitating the Project on Municipal Innovation, the organization recently launched the City Acclerator program. The $3 million program, backed by the Citi Foundation, invests in promising ideas in cities that improve economic opportunity and government operations.

Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation has an Innovations in Government program that spans a variety of activities to support knowledge sharing by curating an index of innovative practices and issuing awards for public sector innovation. The Ash Center is a co-facilitator of the Project on Municipal Innovation and manages the Data-Smart City Solutions blog. The organization also publishes occasional papers, a series of which serve as the basis for Appendix B.

The Governance Lab @ NYU

The Governance Lab (GovLab) is an “action-research” center based at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. The GovLab’s activities involve a Research Network, Living Labs, Observatory, and a free, online Academy. According to their website:

“The GovLab’s work is predicated on the following hypotheses: (a) institutions that govern themselves more collaboratively solve problems faster and with greater success; and (b) greater engagement leads to more legitimate democratic governance and also to better solutions for citizens.”

Although based in academia, the GovLab strives to operate like a tech startup through discrete projects that often serve real-world clients.

3.6 Community Based Civic Technology Organizations

Community-based organizations are typically nonprofits that are focused on improving quality of life at the community level. While these organizations are not new, leveraging civic technology as a tool to drive social impact within these communities is new.

Smart Chicago

Smart Chicago is a civic organization in Chicago that uses technology to improve quality of life. Smart Chicago works to increase access to the Internet and use data to inform decision-making. The organization also supports weekly Open Gov Hack Nights, a CfA Brigade network activity.


OpenOakland shares a similar mission to Smart Chicago, but with a more specific focus on open government and civic innovation. Also part of CfA’s Brigade network, the group partnered with the City of Oakland to launch Oakland Answers, based on a platform originally deployed in Honolulu through CfA’s Fellowship program.

3.7 Incubators, Accelerators and Entrepreneurs-in-Residence

Beyond traditional grant funds, entrepreneurship is an increasingly popular method to support civic innovation through sustainable business models. This paradigm shift treats social impact organizations like modern tech startups. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to test their ideas as early as possible and pivot when necessary.


Tumml is a new urban ventures accelerator program that provides social entrepreneurs with office space, seed funding, mentorship, and in-kind services. Based in San Francisco, the program supports promising ideas to improve city life. For example, a popular company to graduate from their program is The Farmery, which has a unique model of indoor vertical farming and a vision of transforming the supply chain of locally grown food.


CURA:Tech is a program of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota and offers $10,000 grants to develop civic tech solutions that have the potential to improve quality of life in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul region. The program offers larger, follow-up grants for the most promising prototypes.

San Francisco Entrepreneurship-in-Residence

San Francisco’s Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program is an initiative of SFMOCI and brings entrepreneurs and startups into the city and county to better understand the opportunities to make government more efficient. While the program does not offer funding, the ability to better understand user needs can serve as priceless feedback to a startup. Their first cohort launched in March 2014 and consists of six companies.


FastFWD is a program in Philadelphia that is similar to Entrepreneurs-in-Residence programs; however, FastFWD takes a more proactive approach to identifying the problem spaces in which they seek solutions, in consultation with elected officials, city staff, and experts. The program awards $10,000 grants to participants, who also have access to mentors, subject matter experts, and investors. FastFWD seeks scalable solutions that can be replicated elsewhere.

3.8 Innovation Funds and Civic Crowdfunding

Innovation funds provide risk capital to test new ideas. They are premised on the idea that some things are worth trying, even if they are more likely to fail than succeed. However, the ideas that end up working can be transformative. Funds are often distributed through contests or challenges.

CNCS Social Innovation Fund

The Social Innovation Fund (SIF) is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service that encourages evidence-based community solutions in the areas of economic opportunity, health, and youth development. SIF leverages public and private resources, and has invested over a combined half-billion dollars since its inception. SIF grants are competitively awarded and require a 1-to-1 non-federal match.

Palo Alto Apps Challenge

The Palo Alto Apps Challenge was a contest put on by the City of Palo Alto in the first half of 2014, culminating at the National Day of Civic Hacking. The top prize of $3,500 was awarded to Play Palo Alto, an app that enables residents to accumulate points for volunteering and allows them to redeem those points at local establishments.

Bloomberg Mayors Challenge

The 2012-2013 Mayors Challenge solicited proposals from Mayors across the United States to pursue innovative ideas in their cities, including from West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. Over 300 cities applied with 20 reaching finalist status and the winning five each receiving $1 million to finance implementation. Established by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the contest has since expanded to Europe.


Loomio is a free, open source web application that facilitates group decision-making. It’s included here because the effort demonstrates the potential for civic crowdfunding to change the civic innovation landscape. Over the course of its crowdfunding campaign, the Loomio team raised over $125,000 from over 1,600 individuals.

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