The city of Miami’s innovation leader has a new job title more reflective of his responsibilities and the agency’s unified approach to how technology can connect nearly half a million residents with the municipal services they need.
Miami native Michael Sarasti (pictured at left), who joined the city in May 2016 as chief innovation officer — then, a new position in Miami and in the South Florida region — was named its Director of Innovation and Technology on May 15, and will now also lead information technology. Sarasti told Government Technology the city’s strategic planning office will be fused under his leadership, and he’ll have oversight of its employees and his existing staff.
The director, who described his initial role at the city as divided between process improvement work and civic-oriented technology projects, said the shift reflects the agency’s growing relationship with technology; and the considerable thought given to process during the past two years, as well as framing data innovation as process improvement.
The city launched its monthly Innovation Academy late last year, and Sarasti said the process of training around 100 employees thus far has been a tremendous help in changing the mindset at City Hall. There’s a realization by officials that tech alone will not solve problems or more closely connect the agency to its customers, the residents.
“We actually encouraged them not to think about technology at all during those early first steps. The focus really has to be on the user. We forced them into this clarity about what the problem actually is. And all these things we’re doing later, the data, the technology, actually make more sense,” said Sarasti, noting that it also changed the way he regarded his work.
He described the “three-legged stool” supporting the city’s direction and view as resting on the Digital Services Academy in January, which informed its new website; this year’s Denver Peak Academy, which helped Sarasti think about connecting process improvement to digital services; and the ongoing work the city has done with the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) and What Works Cities around online plan review.
Sarasti, formerly a nearly 10-year program manager at Miami-Dade County, said he views technology through the lens of “people, process, data and digital,” with a people-centered approach running through each of those elements.
This has been a significant year for releases in Miami. The city’s new open data portal had a quiet launch in beta during the year’s first quarter. It currently showcases city permitting and budget data, but officials plan to work with Code for Miami to create a notification process for when street trees are about to be cut down — improving transparency and ensuring residents get the required permits.
The city’s new website is also moving forward. Guided by conversations at the recent Digital Services Academy; and by content manager OpenCities, it launched in beta mode late last month. While the site has primarily focused on content, it will add a new review process later this year, enabling electronic plan submission, Sarasti said.
The director’s new title, which he described as “a natural progression,” was an effort by Mayor Francis Suarez and City Manager Emilio Gonzalez “to really push forward on innovation,” he said. Both men, Sarasti said, “have been talking innovation and technology” since his arrival at City Hall.
“The mayor will hold up his phone and say, ‘We want to make things easier. We want to bring services closer to the public, so they don’t have to come in to City Hall,'” Sarasti said.
"The City of Miami deserves talented leadership in these key departments that help us modernize our government and engage our residents," Gonzalez said in a statement, referring also to the hiring of Stephanie Severino as deputy director of the Office of Communications.
Sarasti credited the city’s Strategic Planning and Performance Manager Cheriene Floyd, co-creator of the Innovation Academy, with helping shape that process, adding that Miami will likely be “pushing on” the smart cities concept during the next 12 months.
“I think the next thing is, all right, we’re doing this good job laying down all the piping for data. Now, how can we push that to our residents to make good decisions about their future? How do we make sure that we’re not just making certain communities smarter and better, but how do we use that to scale it to all the communities,” Sarasti said, noting that he is somewhat reluctant to use the term “smart cities” because it can be vague and haphazardly used.
“We’re talking about a more responsive city and a more inclusive city and how technology is going to enable that,” he said.