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Moving On: Office of Innovation and Technology’s Ryan Birchmeier

Ryan Birchmeier. March 15, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongPeopleQ&A

Moving On is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they will share what they learned and where they’re headed.

Ryan Birchmeier didn’t expect to find himself working in city government, let alone a groundbreaking department like the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Technology.

The affable New Jersey native and Saint Joseph’s University alum has worked in communications for the city for three and a half years, first as a content producer, then assistant managing director, and finally community and engagement manager for OIT.

Now, as OIT waits to hear what its budget will be in the Kenney era, Birchmeier is leaving his position with the city and soon moving to NYC to work for the New York City Economic Development Corporation in its public affairs department. Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen spoke with him about how Philly’s innovation work compares to other cities, what you’d be surprised to know about working in city government and what’s going to happen to his improv career. Their conversation has been edited for length.


Generocity: Why are you leaving? How did this opportunity come about?

Ryan Birchmeier: I’ve been flirting with New York City with a number of years now. I’ve been in Philadelphia city government since 2012, and now we just had a mayoral change. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to finally make that jump that I’d been thinking about for a while.

G: Did you always want to work in city government?

RB: No! Not at all. I applied to a random, vague job ad for a temporary communications guy pretty much when I graduated college. I had no idea it was even for city government. Then I took the job, and I assumed that I would stay for a few months and then take a job in the private sector because I had never even considered working in city government, but then I became completely engaged in everything that was going on. It was such an interesting place to be and such a great time to be involved, especially in Philadelphia because so many great things we happening at that time. You know, government comes with all of the frustrations that you think it does, but what I think a lot of people don’t realize is that there’s a ton of interesting work as well. 

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G: What is the OIT like now compared to when you started? How has it evolved, and what initiatives helped bring that change about?

RB: I was pretty fortunate enough to see a lot of great initiatives to see into fruition in the space. I saw the city launch the Innovation Academy, which was huge. There had never been a program that brought a bunch of different employees together into the same room to talk about how to solve problems, and that was a pretty interesting thing — not just because of what they learned, but because this diverse group of city employees became aware of one another, and it formed this incredible network of people that constantly still work together to solve other problems and on other projects. 

I also got to see the Innovation Lab launched, which is kind of the same idea but to create a creative, open co-working space in city government was incredible to see, for the same reasons — that city employees could have a place to work with each other and have a place to be creative and be open and work across departments. When that doesn’t exist, it’s way harder to have that.

Ryan Birchmeier leading a STEM mentoring session in the Innovation Lab.

Ryan Birchmeier leading a STEM mentoring session in the Innovation Lab. (Courtesy photo)

G: Do you know if those programs are continuing in the new administration?

RB: It has not been announced. I can only hope that they do because I’ve been a benefactor of it, and I think anyone who has used programs would speak to the value of them because, by becoming aware of the other people in government, you kind of gain access to their knowledge and expertise, and you just become better at your job.

G: How is the new website [alpha.phila.gov] progressing? 

RB: I work under the city’s lead content designer to transition content from the old website to the new website, and that has been an amazing project to work on. These people are a talented bunch that are doing incredible things and are kind of approaching a government website like — certainly not like Philadelphia had ever approached it before.

G: It’s about making government more accessible for constituents, right? 

RB: That’s exactly right. So right now [we’re] are sifting through tax regulations right now and try to make that be able to digested by the average Philadelphian.

G: How does Philly’s innovation and technology work compare to other cities, that you know of?

RB: In the past couple years, the city transitioned the OIT to be a dual-functioning department, so half of it was focused on things like civic technology and innovation and open data and half of it was the technology component of the infrastructure. Both of those functions are very important. But because Philadelphia did put an emphasis on the innovation and civic technology side, we became a leader in that industry. We’re doing as good of work as any other city right now. Based on the last couple years, we are among the leaders. We just won the Digital Cities Survey because of the innovation and civic technology work, so we’ve kept up with the rest of them and led the way. 

G: What still needs to happen in the department for it to make it better, and to better serve Philadelphians? What direction is it headed in?

RB: I don’t really know, and it would be much easier for me to answer that if the leadership was the same when I was leaving, but we just changed leadership, and there has not been enough time to give any sort of sound advice. I can only say that, the past couple years, we’ve seen incredible things happen, so I really hope it continues on that trajectory.

G: What’s one thing you wish everyone in the city knew about?

RB: I think a lot of people on the outside of government picture government like that back of the DMV — people sitting in drab cubicles, not doing their jobs, don’t want to help citizens, and are just collecting a paycheck. What I found out is there are a ton of motivated, smart, talented people in city government that are working in government because they genuinely care and are genuinely interested in improving the city around them, which is kind of a noble job to do.

G: What’s going to happen to your improv career?

RB: Oh, my gosh! [Laughs] Let’s see. The improv career will, at some point, continue. I don’t know in what capacity it will be. I need to take a survey of the New York landscape of where I can try to get involved. But unfortunately, I have to leave, in a formal sense, the Philadelphia improv community, which has been an incredible community that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of. But I’ll be back to perform every once in a while.

G: Anything else you’d like to share about your time here?

RB: I’ve loved the time here. I enjoy every part of the city. Especially, my favorite thing about city government is what they’ve done for public space in the past couple years. Spruce Street Harbor Park is one of my favorite spots, Race Street Pier, and all the work the Horticultural Society has done with pop-up beer gardens has made it such a great place to live and to have people visit and really be proud of it. So yeah, it’s a sad and exciting move at the same time. I’m so excited I could scream, but I also know that I am leaving something really good.

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