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Is “innovation” an overused word in government?

A couple of weeks ago, New York City’s new mayor Eric Adams signed an executive order consolidating all the city’s technology agencies under a single authority to streamline their operations and foster interagency cooperation. The new operation is called the Office of Technology and Innovation.

We don’t know enough about the details of the consolidation to weigh in on whether it’s a brilliant idea or not. But we do know that we don’t like its name.

For one thing, dubbing any single office as being responsible for innovation misses the idea that every agency in every city should be coming up with new ideas. Just last week, for example, New York’s Department of Sanitation announced that it was trying out particularly nimble vehicles capable of clearing bike lines. We’d call that an innovation, but it decidedly didn’t fall under the auspices of the new office.

O.K. so maybe we’re nitpicking here. There’s no particular harm in naming the new city authority whatever sounds good. But when we heard about the name, it triggered our long-standing frustration at the use of the word innovation to apply to almost anything states and cities do for which they want to create a buzz.

The very word innovation (or its cousins, “innovate,” and “innovative” is used by elected officials as a kind of magic wand that can create better tomorrows. Typical are the words of Alabama governor Kay Ivey in her state of the state address: “Ladies and gentlemen, if innovation and discovery are in our DNA – and they are – just imagine what lies ahead for us if we work together to lay the groundwork for tomorrow.”

There’s no question in our minds that even if the word innovation is overused, the practice of innovating is a very good thing, But when governments overemphasize the notion that their future lies in innovating, they can miss out on another equally important concept: that there are lots of good ideas for successful government that aren’t brand new – but simply need to be implemented.

Consider, for example, the idea of “chief equity officers,” in state and local governments. We’ve interviewed enough of these folks to be convinced that the existence of this office can make a big difference.

Fairfax County Virginia was one of the first places to create that office back in 2018, and a growing number of other places have appointed people to that position since. So, it’s not an innovation anymore. But it’s still a very good idea.

Some state and local government officials are eager to call something an innovation, even when it’s nothing new to the world – but just new there. This notion is reminiscent of an old NBC slogan used to convince people to watch re-runs: “If You Haven’t Seen It, It’s New To You.”

One more point: In the real world, true innovations can just as easily fail as succeed. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be tried. They should be. It’s just worthwhile acknowledging that a whole bunch of new, exciting ideas never really pan out, and that the willingness to take risks is necessary for progress to take place. As a blog post from the Aspen Institute stated, “Innovation depends on failure, and improvement depends on recognizing failure.”


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