Carlsbad’s new Chief Innovation Officer is looking to go beyond the city delivering basic services, towards offering Amazon-like user experience for citizens.
In November last year, David Graham was appointed as Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Carlsbad – the first position of its kind for Carlsbad and the wider San Diego region.
Taking up the role fresh from serving as the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the City of San Diego, Graham is looking to bring the same level of innovative thinking to a much smaller city – San Diego has a population of almost 1.4 million, compared to around 110,000 in Carlsbad.
While there are many strands to Carlsbad’s emerging smart city strategy – including mobility, sustainability, civic engagement, process reengineering and the innovation economy – Graham has one key thing in mind: making the city more convenient for citizens.
“We are very interested in being a next-generation city,” he said. “That is, one that can, more proactively than ever before, anticipate the needs of our residents.”
A fundamental starting point to doing this is breaking down the silos within the city – and this is a crucial area where Graham believes having the dedicated Chief Innovation Officer role can make a difference.
“The Chief Innovation Officer is able to work cross-departmentally to help departments with their use of data and the integration of new technologies, as well as looking forward to the future at how to address the needs of our residents, which are effectively our customers,” he said.
The title of Chief Innovation Officer is relatively new, especially in the public sector.
“Innovation in any organisation – particularly in government – sounds kind of amorphous and scary at the same time,” Graham commented. "So I have had to help people understand what the job is. As soon as they realise that it’s not me sitting in my Batcave coming up with some brand new, amazing idea, dropping it on them and walking away – but instead, coming along as additional support with potentially new ways of thinking or doing – there is a sigh of relief."
As soon as they realise that it’s not me sitting in my Batcave coming up with some brand new, amazing idea, dropping it on them and walking away, there is a sigh of relief.
Graham has spent the first few months in his role listening, rather than immediately looking for technology solutions.
This has included spending time with staff across different departments to understand more about projects which were stuck and needed support, new partners, new resources or new ways of thinking to move ahead, as well as working with the teams to start to develop “moonshot” projects for the future, he said.
One initiative which reflects the culture change Graham wants to drive is the application of more innovative processes in perhaps-unexpected places.
Carlsbad ran an innovation thinking workshop with all of its budget analysts as part of their work developing the next budget. These non-C-level employees might not previously have been invited to contribute in this way.
“It’s not just about having the leadership understand innovation thinking; it’s about embedding innovation at all levels of the organisation,” Graham said.
Part of this will also be a shift to continuous improvement, which doesn’t always fit with the typical long, fixed cycles of local government.
Graham said: “When we think about the disruption that we have today, the needs of our residents – we can’t put a system in place and expect it to work for 30 years anymore.”
He said one of the key takeaways from the internal listening exercise was how “exhausting” the idea of continuous improvement might seem to already-stretched people.
“If we think about it, though, it could be very liberating,” he said. “With continuous improvement, at any time you can raise ideas, flaws, issues and pivots that are needed to management – without fear of judgement. This doesn’t mean that the original plan was wrong but that the needs of the residents have changed.”
With his new team on-board, Graham is now looking to bring citizens into the conversation in a much more meaningful way.
Graham wants to develop “new models” for citizen engagement. This includes the Carlsbad Citizens Academy, which is a free, seven-week programme designed to help Carlsbad residents “get into the guts” of what the city is and does and how they can be part of the decision-making process.
“When it comes to civic engagement, we respect the role of the public in helping us make decisions. We believe a clear engagement strategy will lead to better decision-making, improved relationships and better outcomes,” Graham said.
We believe a clear engagement strategy will lead to better decision-making, improved relationships and better outcomes.
Carlsbad is also developing a digital toolkit for civic engagement and has recently launched the new Public Input digital platform, where citizens can have their say on city-related matters from public space plans to budgeting. Soon, Carlsbad residents will have an app where they can report issues such as potholes or broken lights.
Last year, Carlsbad launched a Public Records Act request portal, which enables citizens to access information faster. Traditional processes meant request responses could take up to 10 days. Now, keyword searches immediately pull up documents that have previously been requested by someone else or other places where the document can be found instantly.
This has cut traditional requests by 30 per cent already. The service is also being expanded to enquiries about city council members and the mayor.
This idea of using data to understand citizens better and pre-empt their requirements is set to evolve further. With concerns about data higher on the agenda than ever before, Graham is keen to stress the importance of respecting privacy consents and showing how data can be used responsibly by cities to do good for citizens.
He said: “As members of the public, we already provide so much information about ourselves – voluntarily – to companies, to social media, etc. There’s the opportunity for the city begin to gather and garner some of that information so that we have a more accurate understanding of our residents.
"Additionally, across all the departments, each of your touchpoints with the city is helping to develop your user profile so we have a better understanding of what you want, who you are and the types of services that we can provide.”
“It’s moving towards that CRM (customer/citizen relationship management) approach where you begin to think about your residents like a company thinks about its customers,” he added.
It’s moving towards that CRM approach where you begin to think about your residents like a company thinks about its customers.
According to Graham: “Providing that Amazon quality of experience to the way that people interact with government fundamentally changes the relationship from regulator and citizen to being more about the user experience in a city. It goes beyond simply delivering the traditional services that government has provided.”
The City is developing a cross-departmental, city-wide Connected Carlsbad smart city strategy which will be a “guidebook” for goals and initiatives. A further priority will be collaborating closely with other cities in the region to share best practices and resources.
“You’re going to see us being a leader in a regional effort around connected community,” Graham said.
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