New York City’s approach to technology may soon change. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio entered the scene, and in early May, he named Anne Roest as commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). Roest, who started her position on May 27, explained that the Big Apple is planning some new projects and expanding others, like turning the city’s payphone booths into Wi-Fi hot spots.
But to Roest, it’s not the technology that counts, but how it’s used.
“We get new acronyms and gadgets and widgets coming along just about every day, but what really excites me is application of technology – especially where people take really simple tools and create really brilliant services,” she said, and then cited an app, simply called Fire Department, as a prime example of using established technology in an innovative way.
“People trained in CPR subscribe to it; it’s been rolled out to more than 100 cities where emergency dispatchers can notify trained CPR citizens that there’s a heart attack going on. It’s saving lives because people can go and administer CPR before the ambulance gets there,” she said. “It’s so simple, so elegant, and yet so brilliant – and it’s really effective.”
Innovation begins with people, and Roest said one of her big focuses will be organizational development and workforce planning, with an emphasis on improved customer service -- to make sure DoITT is structured appropriately to provide outstanding customer service to the agencies it supports and create a sense that their success is how DoITT's success will be measured.
“There’s always room for improvement," she said. "Technology organizations can sometimes lose sight of their mission, and we become a control agency rather than a support agency.” Getting more employees whose main job function is to provide customer service will enable the city to play a support role, she said.
Roest borrows from fellow New Yorker Woody Allen’s approach to people management – she watches enough to ensure that the product is aligned with the original vision, but otherwise allows talented people to do the work they were hired to do.
“I tend to surround myself with really, really smart people whom I respect and trust, and my job is to make sure they understand what the goals and priorities are, and then I empower them to do their jobs,” Roest said. “I’ll make the hard decisions. Ultimately, I’m in charge and I’m responsible for what happens in the agency, but I do like to foster a team environment where people aren’t afraid to speak up.”
Engendering a culture where everyone in the 1,200-person agency feels they own a piece of the mission is critically important to its success, Roest said, and noted one particular sticking point. “People need to treat each other with respect; I don’t have a lot of tolerance for people treating subordinates, peers or superiors disrespectfully, because we’re all important players in the organization,” she said. “No one of us can get this done alone.”
Roest expanded that idea to include the New York City public in general. City leaders want to expand and grow the tech sector in the city, Roest said, adding that part of the way the city would do that is make it easier for start-ups and small business to engage and do business with the city.
“There will be some investment in education for technical skills, improving the ease of access to technology and government services," she said. "We want to make government, especially New York City government, the most exciting place to work. That’s one of my projects is to come up with ways to allow our workforce to implement cutting-edge technologies, to put them in the driver’s seat and help them move us forward.”
Roest said she wants to implement peer mentorship and networking programs like the ones led by Code For America, because it opens up new ideas and possibilities for the city. Roest also said she likes Google’s policy of giving employees time to develop their own side-projects.
Ultimately, she said, it’s about ensuring other city agencies and the citizens are satisfied with the work they’re doing. “Actually, that’s one of the ways I’ll be measured, both technically and by how happy the agencies are and how much we enable and empower them,” she said. “That’s really what IT is about.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.