In discussing his work, Evanston, Ill., CIO Luke Stowe recently said something surprising: “I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel.”
This may seem counterintuitive for a public servant, yet as Stowe explains it, it makes perfect sense. Stowe’s approach to gov tech is to thoroughly and effectively do the unsung work of IT before executing on flashier projects.
“One of the challenges is that some of the most important stuff we do is not always exciting, but it’s still critical to the daily functions of the city,” Stowe said. “A network switch refresh isn’t exciting, but it’s still critical and has to get done.”
It’s a sentiment that has served his city well. Evanston, a Chicago suburb home to roughly 75,000 residents as well as to Northwestern University, has made much progress through tech since Stowe became its first CIO in 2016. This progress has been wide-ranging, including getting a new camera system for police, launching a customer-focused cashiering program, moving departments off paper-based systems, creating apps, building a new city website, overhauling the city’s open data portal and so on. Also, the city now works more closely with Northwestern on a range of projects, from fiber to data science.
Stowe has also steadfastly approached typical challenges — silos, legacy systems, budget constraints — without re-inventing the wheel, as advertised. His IT team meets monthly with department heads, he carefully vets tech to ensure it will remain relevant, and he uses national benchmarks like Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities as a guide. This has positioned Evanston to continue evolving, although Stowe is reluctant to take credit.
“The talent on this team is the other folks, not me,” Stowe said, “but I think being able to bridge the gap between the technology processes and the business processes, I’ve been able to do a decent job of translating those two worlds.”