The public sector remains relatively preserved from tech innovation, which is precisely what makes it interesting to work for and work with. In San Francisco, local government and entrepreneurship are far from being antinomic. On the contrary, they try to work together to create new market opportunities.

“Government might be the final frontier of innovation; this is what makes it exciting”

Interview with Shannon Spanhake, Deputy Innovation Officer for the City and County of San Francisco.

L'Atelier: Your title says “Deputy Innovation Officer for the City and County of San Francisco”, I have never heard of such a position…

Shannon: The “Chief Innovation Officer position” was created by Mayor Lee shortly after he was elected the 43rd Mayor of San Francisco. He appointed Jay Nath to this role and then Jay appointed me as his Deputy. We are a team of two who have the fantastic opportunity to create an Open Government program to improve the delivery of government services to further enable businesses, entrepreneurs, and engaged citizens with opportunities to continue making San Francisco the Innovation Capital of the World. Mayor Lee was one of the first US mayors to create such a role, which shows his commitment to innovation and confirms San Francisco’s leadership position.

You and Jay both have backgrounds in tech and in the startup world…

Yes, Jay and I have worked in tech startups and did some consulting, so we feel very close to this community. We bring some of those practices into our roles within government - we stay lean and agile, take calculated risks, fail forward, and we work iteratively on projects towards a minimal viable product. In fact, our project portfolio is titled “A Startup Called “Government”. We also have the resources of an early-stage startup, with $0 budget and a team of two, we invest our time into projects that will have the biggest impact, projects that will generate even more opportunities – we refer to this as the “platform-play”. An example of making the platform play is the early work that Jay did in Open Data. Rather than investing in a single opportunity with a single dataset for a single app developer, he invested in an API that opened many datasets for many developers. This approach yielded an apps catalogue with over 60+ civic apps at minimal cost to government – this is generative innovation, something we aim for in all of our work.

What exactly are you working on?

Recently we launched a project called ImproveSF, an online platform that connects civic challenges to citizen problem solvers, the first set of challenges asked participants to vote on ways to improve transit time. In another challenge we reached out to our great design community asking them to design a new brand for SFMTA. Many people submitted, voted, commented, and constructively debated issues. The design submissions are all terrific, coming from a diverse group, from a Muni car operator, to students, to professional designers. This demonstrates that citizens are willing to apply their expertise at the service of government when asked.

Additionally, we continue to support other ways for citizens to engage in civic issues through events such as hackathons and design charrettes. In February, for instance, we worked with local university California College of the Arts, Mix and Stir Studios to organize a design charrette around improving taxi dispatch and transit information displays. For this event, we brought together government representatives, taxi companies, a taxi driver to explain the complexity of the challenge to the programmers, designers, and entrepreneurs ready to spend their weekend designing solutions. One of the winning information display ideas may be piloted with the SFMTA.

The real challenge with hackathons is what happens next? Hackathons produce terrific prototypes but how do we scale those prototypes into sustainable products, services, or businesses? This is important to government because we can only work with sustainable solutions able to provide service and maintenance for the long-term. We can bring startup practices into our daily work but ultimately government has to be stable, we can never flip it or go out of business like a startup.

Is it hard to make city issues appealing to young developers and entrepreneurs?

Not at all! We have had great success getting citizens engaged; OpenData, ImproveSF and hackathons are examples of this. However, it is true that there is a stigma about working in the public sector but I work with many public servants that are passionate and dynamic – I have been inspired every day since I started this job and hope that I can contribute to a remaking of the public servant image...public servant 2.0!

Working on city issues for the public sector is about solving problems on a grand scale. Since most developers and entrepreneurs are innovators, and innovators are fundamentally problem solvers - then government, to me, seems the best place to work because there are so many interesting problems to solve. In fact, government might be the final frontier of innovation, one of the last places relatively untouched by the innovation that has changed the world around it – this is what makes it extremely exciting to me.

What best practices would you share with other city governments about how to embrace the tech world and track innovation trends ?

To embrace the tech world, I would say to create an Innovation team who is an interface between the tech world and other city departments to enable tech entrepreneurs to start, stay and grow businesses in your city. Additionally, create demand as well as supply. In San Francisco, we have plentiful innovation supply, so now the question is how can we create demand? Our IT budgets are relatively inaccessible to startups and we cannot easily procure new technologies. Finding ways to reduce these barriers would create an entirely new market opportunity that might encourage more entrepreneurs to design civic technologies – the potential for this as an enabler of innovation is huge.

To track innovation trends, we scan, but also we encourage our communities to make their presence known to us. An example of this is the sharing economy sector. This sector is a cluster of new businesses formed around the idea that underutilized assets can be monetized - co-working spaces, car sharing, room or tool micro-rental are examples. These companies are rapidly growing, very organized, and vocal through holding events (Collaborative chats), writing ( and leveraging a strong social media presence. This sector is relatively new but has become a force to be reckoned with. Their big presence and high impact made them known to us and as such we were able to quickly responded. We participated in a roundtable with representatives of the sharing economy sector hosted by SPUR this past April. Also, Mayor Lee formed the nation’s first-ever Sharing Economy Working Group to evaluate the economic benefits and emerging policy issues. I hope that our work in San Francisco would activate similar conversations in other cities, so that these innovative companies can scale their businesses. In San Francisco, we encourage risk-taking, impossible odds, and bottoms-up innovation - this is the metabolism of our City that keeps it healthy.

By Alice Gillet
English editorial manager