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Photo: David Graham

David Graham, Carlsbad: “The biggest barrier to innovation is procurement”

27 July 2020

by Sarah Wray

David Graham, Chief Innovation Officer in Carlsbad, spoke to Jonathan Andrews about how the Californian city is seeking to redefine communities through its recently approved innovation roadmap.

Most cities that can boast a chief innovation officer tend to be large metropolises like Boston, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Only a handful of smaller cities have been in a position to add the role to their governance structure.

The southern California city of Carlsbad, with 112,000 people, is one that has begun to prioritise innovation through a dedicated innovation officer. Establishing the position in 2018, the city hired David Graham, who was then deputy chief operating officer in neighbouring San Diego where he had served the city and county for 20 years.

In an interview with Cities Today at the time, Graham said the position was attractive to him as it was the opportunity to work in a “1-2-3” city – 100,000 to 300,000 people – that is close to residents and nimble.

“I was very excited to be working across all of the departments, because there’s a real enthusiasm in Carlsbad for technology and different ideas for serving our residents,” he explains.

For its size, Carlsbad had already been a pioneer in deploying advanced technological and data-driven tools. These included a city app for residents to report issues, a data analytics service for the library, an e-zoning map used by the planning department, and a centrally connected traffic signal network and management centre that is the largest of its kind in the region.

Connected communities

Yet, many challenges remained. “The first thing when I arrived, I recognised there was a disconnect between many of the departments and divisions,” he says. “I began analysing the systems that were in place.”

Graham discovered that there were six work order management systems alone, five asset management systems, redundant tools and integration was “spotty at best”. Adding to his headaches were a communications strategy that had not been “deployed strategically,” including an outdated legacy phone system that was separate from the rest of the city’s communications systems, and a computer network that was using consumer-grade broadband.

“There were lots of good ideas in using technology but the interconnection between them and the people aspect of working together, like in many organisations, [needed] improvement,” he says.

Graham’s first task was to develop a citizen-inclusive innovation roadmap to serve as a guidepost for departments to visualise what was happening across the entire city and where they were headed. During 2019 he drove the development of the strategy, taking a human-centred and listening approach, that was inclusive in the roadmap’s DNA.

Based upon feedback from the city council, a survey of 100 staff members, and community involvement, the Connected Carlsbad: An Inclusive City Innovation Roadmap was presented to city council and approved in January this year. The roadmap is a “dynamic document” that will be continuously updated based upon public input and city needs, and moves the city away from the concept of a ‘smart city’ and more towards ‘city innovation and connected communities’.

The city is home to companies providing innovation to the local economy, including Viasat, so connecting Carlsbad with innovation was important to Graham and the city.

The five key pillars of the roadmap include pursuing community-wide digital transformation, building capacity for data-driven government, fostering a vibrant civic engagement culture, enhancing accessibility and transparency, and promoting safety and sustainability through connectivity.

To achieve greater capacity for data-driven governance, a new data governance team will be developed, led by Graham, that will be responsible for developing and implementing data policies and practices. The team’s first priority will be to create an open data policy, build and maintain a data inventory, train staff, and develop a data performance dashboard that can be used by the public.

Making digital interactions with citizens easier is also a key factor in Graham’s thinking. The most common example is enabling residents to pay council bills online. However, depending on their use of city services, a Carlsbad resident may have up to half a dozen different account usernames and passwords to remember to pay water and sewage bills, access city library services, and business licences, among others.

This tends to waste staff time in providing assistance to those with login problems or who find themselves locked out of their account. The ultimate goal for Graham and the city is for users to have only one login credential to access any city service.

The southern California city of Carlsbad has a population of 112,000

Communications infrastructure

To achieve all of this, though, the infrastructure has to be right. “The one thing that I have found –and we see this across a lot of cities–is that what is under the hood really matters,” he says. “It may not be the flashy things but you really have got to solve your communications infrastructure, your organisational systems early or else those will just be niggling issues as you try to bring in something new.”

One thing Graham recognised was that the communications infrastructure in Carlsbad had not been deployed strategically.

“The basic thinking had been, ‘OK we’re going to do smart traffic signals’, and, ‘Oh we need a network for that, so OK let’s do a wireless network, and now we want Wi-Fi in the parks, and smart meters,’” he explains.

“I was impressed by the city’s IT team because they had wanted to think strategically noting the need for a network first before adding what goes on it. That is the shift where we are going now.”

Working closely with the city’s chief information officer and IT team, Graham was tasked by council with realising a digital information network using existing third-party fibre. The city is now building out a 10 gigabyte visual information network with a 200 gigabyte loop to all city sites for US$4.4 million.

“Very smart people had negotiated with a fibre provider – that wanted to install around the city –four to six strands of fibre for free,” he explains. “Until then it hadn’t been taken advantage of. That is just an incredible jump to go from having little better than consumer-grade broadband to a digital network that can handle all of our needs.”

To take advantage of the new infrastructure being rolled out, and tap into local innovative companies, the city decided in November 2019 not to release a request for information or proposal (RFI and RFP) but instead to put out a ‘request for innovative digital transformation ideas and partners’, or a request for qualifications (RFQ).

The RFQ is challenge-based procurement that was inspired by City Innovate’s Start-Up in Residence programme run by San Francisco’s former chief information officer, Jay Nath.

Carlsbad had been an active participant in the programme putting out more challenges than any other city. “The biggest barrier to innovation is procurement and we’ve got to get that right,” says Graham.

“In government everybody recognises that but it’s so hairy that most folks don’t want to tackle it. We fortunately have leadership to tackle these persistent problems.”

The deadline closed in December 2019 and the city is due to select and finalise its“digital transformation partners” and will either contact the partners directly or arrange RFP sprints to procure those services.

“We had an incredible response and what was clear was the creativity that is out there in the private sector when you take the shackles off,” he says.

COVID-19 impact

The global COVID-19 pandemic that has reached cities across the world has meant that some initiatives Graham had lined up could now be accelerated much more quickly.

“We fortunately had been trying to move more and more things online,” he explains. “A lot of cities are seeing this as an impetus to really push up the timeframe for their digital transformation efforts, especially those relating to public-facing services.”

Carlsbad and the region are also no stranger to disaster response, having experienced wildfires and a Hepatitis A outbreak in the last decade. Although far different from the coronavirus pandemic, Graham says that this has helped put in place a robust emergency operations centre – where Graham now splits his time working between City Hall and home.

With an “excellent” emergency preparedness director, the city had been tracking and preparing for the virus since January.

“There are a lot of lessons you can apply from having gone through these sorts of situations before,” adds Graham. “The city has fairly recently updated its continuity of operations plan. From a strategic standpoint, the city is well prepared to deal with situations like this.”

Carlsbad was one of the first cities in the US to hold council meetings through virtual means, missing only one, and already had in place a telecommuting policy that had expanded the use of digital tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom.


Graham takes pride in the ingenuity of the city’s departments which has led to new ways for local government to operate, “stay open” and serve residents. This includes a new way for people to safely drop off building permits, and the creation of an online map to enable residents under lockdown to easily find restaurants and cafes that either offer deliveries or kerbside take-away services.

The map has not only helped residents but also local businesses to continue to operate during the state-wide stay-at-home order in California.

“We immediately started engaging with our small- and medium-sized businesses to figure out what we could do to help them and what services they need,” he says. “In a lot of ways, communication has been key for our companies.”

The city has since been issuing joint communications with the Chamber of Commerce and the Village Association to help summarise and connect companies with resources like small business loans, disaster recovery, and unemployment and disability payments for workers. Graham says that since its launch in March, the map has had a “flood of requests” from businesses to be included and has coincided with the creation of other GIS mapping on a range of issues to help residents and businesses.

This includes working with 911 dispatch information to have local data on people who have symptoms, to help the city recognise and respond to clusters.

“We’re getting good information from the County of San Diego but there’s even more localised data sets that we can use to help our first responders and our disaster preparedness and management, to understand what is happening in this situation,” he adds.

What the future holds for cities and their operations remains to be seen. Graham, although reluctant to say that any positives could come from such a global catastrophe, says that it has brought some hope to the growing number of innovation officers.

“The lessons that are going to come out of coronavirus [show] what is possible, including accelerated culture change, because we’re in a crisis,” he says. “It will have a profound impact on cities and their digital transformation efforts.”

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