Hoffman Trades Civic Activism For County Innovation Post
Until a few weeks ago, Dan Hoffman was a typical civic activist — president of his North Bethesda neighborhood association and member of a county citizens advisory board, involved in discussions of his community from the outside. Now, Hoffman sits in an office on the second floor of Montgomery County's Executive Office Building in Rockville, steps away from the desk of the county's chief decision maker and among department heads. The 35-year-old recently began as the county's first ever Chief Innovation Officer, a position created this year based on similar initiatives in Philadelphia and San Francisco and a rare example of someone getting to participate in local government from both sides. "I did not anticipate being here a year ago," Hoffman said last week. "I'm on the other side of the fence. Now all that I've seen I can incorporate and I can speak to. That definitely helps." Hoffman will be responsible for expanding the county's open data program and maintaining a portfolio of pilot projects that enhance government services, whether it's more efficiently controlling traffic lights or making County Council legislation easier to understand for the general public. "A lot of people see innovation officer and think, 'What apps are you going to put together for my phone?' Technology is actually a relatively small part of this job," Hoffman said. "In Montgomery County, we like to think of ourselves as ahead of the curve and that comes with effort. It comes with trying new things. It comes with creating a safe place for new ideas and having a government that is responsive and a government that leads the way on issues." So far, Hoffman's office has a few books on a bookshelf, some newly assembled furniture and a whiteboard, what he called perhaps the most basic "innovation tool." The position, with $150,000 worth of annual salary and benefits, was created in May based on the model of other cities. San Francisco's chief innovation officer linked with private companies to come up with a series of popular smartphone apps based on government data. The SFPark app, for example, provides a real time inventory of available parking spots to help reduce circling and double parking that city officials hope makes residents and tourists happier and reduces congestion and air pollution. County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) proposed what would become Hoffman's position and met with him in his first few weeks on the job. "The goal is to make sure we are empowering our citizens, increasing economic activity and increasing our government's efficiency. All of that is wrapped in what a chief innovation officer hopefully will be doing," Berliner said. "The power of citizens has not been in my judgment used as much in our county as it can be. You want to use the smartphone technology to communicate with your citizens but more importantly to allow your citizens to communicate with you." Adding to the county's open data site, and synchronizing documents of all types so citizens can manipulate and analyze the data easily, is Hoffman's foremost priority. He hopes the county's site can one day match the breadth of data on similar sites in major cities such as Chicago, which features data sets on things including bike rack locations, where to get a flu shot and categorized crime statistics since 2001. The goal then would be to encourage companies, whether through "hackathons," or other means, to come up with original apps or other tools to use the data, at no cost to taxpayers. Hoffman, though, also hopes to create a series of pilot programs for whatever county department or agency is willing. He's aiming to create a list of programs, based on input from government officials, councilmembers and citizens, by January or February, in time for inclusion in next year's budget. "One of the things I asked when interviewing, 'If you're looking for a deep-tech guy, if you're looking for the guy who's going to come in and write the next search algorithm, that's not me,'" said Hoffman, who left a job at the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the county post. "County issues are what I feel most strongly about." Since 2002, when Hoffman and his wife moved to the county, he's been involved in the Randolph Civic Association, which took part in discussions over the massive redevelopment planned around the White Flint Metro station as part of the White Flint Sector Plan. He has dropped his role of president of that organization and as a member of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board since becoming chief innovation officer. But his interest in one particular issue, attracting young professionals to the broaden the county's tax base, remains. "That was the idea behind White Flint," Hoffman said. "Indirectly, I want the county and county government to facilitate positioning Montgomery County as an exciting place for young professionals to move to. I still think we lead the way, but we are not the only option when it comes to quality education, to good schools. Young professionals are starting to stay in the District or choose Virginia over us. "It comes with trying new things. It comes with creating new ideas," Hoffman said. "And that's why they created this position."