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Reimagining Leadership in Public-Sector IT (Contributed)

Against the backdrop of COVID-19 and ongoing social unrest in the U.S., three leading women in government technology roles discuss the impact of technology and diversity on elevating civic outcomes.

by Heidi Lorenzen / October 9, 2020

This is a pivotal time for government leadership worldwide marked by social unrest, economic uncertainty and a global pandemic. As people look to their city, state and federal government to keep them safe, women leaders in countries like New Zealand, Germany and Taiwan have been garnering praise for their skillful navigation of these unprecedented times. Yet women still make up only a small percentage of government leaders — particularly in gov tech. Only 24 percent of city CIOs are female. Women are similarly notoriously underrepresented in the tech industry, making up only 25 percent of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft staff. 

Three women leaders driving impact and results in gov tech — Amy Tong, CIO of California; Tye Hayes, CTO of Atlanta; and Jennifer Bradley, founding director at the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute — recently had a conversation on “Women Reimagining Gov Tech Leadership and Impact” with moderator Heidi Lorenzen, co-chair of the National League of Cities Corporate Partners Leadership Council and vice president of marketing at Accela. They provided forward-looking insights into how leaders can cultivate greater diversity and representation in government technology, the leadership and technology requirements of a government reimagined, and where they hope to see the industry evolve.

Heidi Lorenzen: What is a key initiative that you're working on right now that exemplifies reimagining the impact gov tech can have? 

Amy Tong: Here in California, a lot of initiatives became more crystallized due to the pandemic. Telework has become our norm now, and we can see it as the way we will work for the foreseeable future. What that has prompted is not only a transformational technology shift, but more importantly, it highlights the need for broadband connection as a foundational infrastructural support for the state of California. And given the size of our state, the services needed to reach all Californians, and some with limited access. Many kids are learning from home while their parents are working from home. Having broadband with equity, access and affordability is a huge initiative for this administration, as is looking into more of the transactions that need to be conducted through digital services. 

Jennifer Bradley: I'm working with an accelerator called Civstart. Their focus is on creating a pipeline of sustainable gov tech companies with underrepresented founders, and I think that the two parts of that which companies, and startups in particular, need in order to be sustainable is really smart: women and people of color. It is often hard enough to raise the first round of capital, and if they create companies that aren’t sustainable, it's that much harder for them to raise the second round of capital. Failure is a kind of privilege in the venture capital system. So I'm excited because when we have more diverse makers of government technology, we will be able to solve more problems for more kinds of people. As we all know, we literally embed and encode our own experiences in the tech we make. And so if we have all of those kinds of experiences informing what government does, it’s a form of democracy, and I think we will end up getting better results. 

Tye Hayes: One of the things we are doing right now is automating city hall for the things we were having individuals come into the building to do. We had to transform the organization to have those things done remotely. That's everything from processing different types of permits to all of the different boards and agencies in the City Council, and looking at the way we do our notifications to the public and ensure there’s participation. Also, with the recent riots we experienced in Atlanta, we've had to completely transform the way our police are able to do their jobs. And so right now, we’re in the middle of really reimagining real-time crime-fighting and looking for proactive ways to police. We have a vast Video Integration Center project underway that will allow us to not only integrate city assets into our police department, but also all of the cameras from local businesses, residents, universities and surrounding areas.

Lorenzen: What do you think are the leadership qualities in local government needed for the next two to three years as we collectively navigate the pandemic and its aftermath, overlaid by social unrest, climate events and the like?

Hayes: I think IT leaders need to have great foundational skills, but they also need to have a sense of business acumen. They need to be able to understand that the customers they are supporting and helping go through this transformation are changing the lives of folks who have been in government for a while, and we’re having to coach them a little and let them know that they can take on this charge. A well-rounded leader demonstrates patience.

Tong: From a leadership perspective, I always say that people are the most valuable. In the case of this telework environment, we don't get to see everyone in person every day. So we need to try to find ways to inspire, build and support the team virtually and encourage them to maintain a work-life balance so that there is a productive way of delivery moving forward in this virtual environment. It’s very important. So that type of leader must lead by example, have empathy and an understanding of what type of changes individual staff members are going through, and then apply that to the public we serve. I also think using data analytics to support decision-making is important in this environment. We all have to move fast and make rapid decisions. You don’t want to make a decision based on what people think; you want to make a decision that is data-driven. And I think it’s very important that we have a calm demeanor and use data to make impactful decisions.

Bradley: Innovation is hard and it comes from doing things that people haven’t done before. So I think there is an increasing comfort in government with being honest and open about things that didn't go right the first time — thinking about pilots, small steps to innovate, and being transparent. Some of the other skills I think that leaders need at this time are translation skills. There is a lot of fear, I think, around privacy, particularly when you think about the way certain calls for social justice run up against certain kinds of surveillance technology, artificial intelligence, and algorithms. Leaders need to be able to talk to different groups and explain why we’re going to do this or not going to do that, here’s what’s safe, and here’s what’s not. And leaders need to have excellent networks. Government technologists are some of the smartest, most forward-thinking people in the world, on the planet, but they don't know everything that the companies that are selling to them know. How can they scale up faster so they can be as smart as the products that are being offered to them?

Lorenzen: What do you see the role of technology being in the next year — and next decade — for government? Where do you see the greatest opportunities for improving communities?

Bradley: A more diverse supplier pipeline of gov tech will be essential to solving problems for communities. For example, if you are somebody who has been in a wheelchair or pushed grocery cart or a stroller, you don't look at stairs and curves in the same way. You understand that there need to be adjustments made for people who are using wheels. The same is true for technology. For example, early on in the pandemic, people were having a hard time using food stamps for food delivery services. That shouldn’t happen, and we need the people designing these systems to be aware of the impact on people using those services.

In both the short term and in the long term, making sure that you have a diverse experience pool is going to be important. In the long term, I would also love a government in which routine things are automated to make sure that what should be easy is easy, and free up the time and skills of staff to respond to problems that don’t neatly fit within a box with deep empathy. My hope is that we get much better at letting humans do what humans are great at, and letting the tech do with the tech is great at.

Hayes: There are a lot of opportunities to streamline how we operate and allow for city services to happen. We are going to have to look at how we can still have very transparent procurement processes and how we invoice and pay. Those areas are things that can be overhauled. You can still have oversight and policies while automating. I've seen that coming from the federal government, and I think there are the same opportunities in local government. 

I also think it's important to be proactive and look at services from a proactive perspective — so before it fails and before there's a break in the water main, how do we get in front of that and use all the great data we have to predict when we need to start looking at maintenance and be a lot smarter? We need to have avenues to be able to bring in some of the great technology changes that happen a lot faster, so by the time you get something in, the next new thing isn’t already out. I think data is going to be the catalyst for that in terms of how we change. It will help us from a transparency perspective so that we can have a lot more collaboration with our constituents and residents. I also think that with collaboration with local government, business, universities and a consortium of thought leadership around what you want that city to look like, there’s ownership across the board. I’ve seen that in Atlanta around the Super Bowl in 2019 and how that all came together and put together all the pieces to run smoothly. I saw a lot of greatness happening during that process. That is something I think should continue to be the norm.

Tong: A specific start with the procurement process is that the culture of government needs to become less risk-averse. Frankly, a lot of the reasons procurement before was taking so long is because every term and condition that people could think of came through. California has started procurement modernization. It’s not the mechanics that needs to improve — it is changing the culture of risk tolerance. We’re down from about six months procurement to a matter of two to three weeks. It is also becoming more important to remind ourselves why we actually procure: We procure to acquire innovative solutions so we can deliver for residents. If we continue to center our thinking in the idea that public service is here to help our residents, it becomes more of a support system for them.

Lorenzen: When the pipeline for innovative technologies opens up, what is the end goal? What do you envision for communities in the future?

Hayes: That's when it's a true partnership where communities and government work together, when you have the locals participating in strategy sessions and visions for government. As you evolve and transform, you not only have to build that knowledge capacity internally, but you also have to make sure that your residents and partners understand what that means and what capabilities are being provided.

Tong: For me it is wanting to change from a reactive mode to a proactive mode. And having the ecosystem and culture change to be less risk-averse to allow for innovation. You want to leverage the technology where it can best serve and elevate the human touch part of it to those that you know require a level of empathy and interaction. And then there’s workforce transformation — not just the knowledge, but transforming how you deliver a service. Government transformation is not just based on technology. It's about policy procedure and operation transformation. Those both need to occur because without them you are merely automating an old, archaic policy.

Bradley: Amy, to your point about policy, it's not just technology. It's also process and implementation. That's what we don't think about enough, certainly on my end, people who do what I do. We're always trying to cram policies into the same plumbing system where all of the other policies somehow got stuck and that didn't necessarily produce the outcomes that we wanted. We don't think enough about what’s going into the plumbing. We think, “Oh, okay, we're just going to put more policy in these types.” The thing that frontline workers need isn’t yard signs that say “We support you” or people coming out at 7 p.m. as they did in the early days and clapping for them. They need broadband in their neighborhoods and their kids' schools and libraries. They need transportation that is safe, efficient and works for them — for the people who have to do their jobs correctly for us to do anything at all. I want cities that put our essential workers in the center and prioritize them, because those will be the cities that work for everybody. If we look at that from not just a policy or technology point, but from an implementation and process point, we will get there faster than if we pretend that there's a single siloed solution.

Lorenzen: Has your career experience as a woman and/or person of color influenced how you approach your role and responsibilities? 

Hayes: I am a product of urban Atlanta. I came up on government programming — Outward Bound and all of the programs that were made available. I was also the first to go to college in my family. That’s something I feel passionate about, but it also shows that you can't judge a book by its cover. I think that speaks to my leadership style in terms of always finding personal connections within a project. Mentoring and coaching are very important to me. As a woman, I have benefited from great relationships. People saw things in me that I didn't see in myself. That goes a long way. From a technology perspective, and in the roles that we play, we care about people, care about the outcome, want what we deliver to be the best in class — in everything that we do. And I think it resonates with the work. 

Tong: I am a first-generation immigrant, and English is not my first language. After I immigrated to the U.S., I had to learn. That experience propelled me to think about every time we provide a public service or communications and messaging. You always have to keep in mind the diversity of the residents we serve and their various needs.

Lorenzen: What is something that you're particularly excited about going forward in government technology? What is a bit of advice for those who may not be in senior leadership roles and government, but who are eager to drive the kind of change that you all have been talking about, including leveraging technology for more inclusivity? 

Bradley: Those answers overlap. What I am excited about in gov tech is the potential to use policy, process and technology to solve problems that we haven't solved yet because we haven't been asking those most affected by the problems. My advice is to make sure you have people who can see possibilities and bring new opportunities to your team wherever you are in the ecosystem. 

Hayes: I'm excited about where I see data and government. I think it's a game-changer in building connected cities and changing the way services are provided. There are a lot of pitches around smart cities and all that, but I think about connected cities and using that data to change the way services are provided. My message to anyone in technology is to have a seat at the table. Often the answers are there, but people are afraid to speak up or don't know if it's appropriate. And if you are in leadership and you say you have an open-door policy, genuinely have one. Listen to the people that are coming. 

Tong: The pandemic has not only changed how people are thinking about how we go forward, but has opened up and crystallized what is essential for us to focus on. Because of this, the government — or at least the part that I'm trying to model — is trying not to overthink things. Have the courage to try different things out, and if you fail, learn from it and move forward. Because we are putting ourselves in a situation where we have to make rapid responses and rapid decisions. We have to build up that muscle. 

Amy Tong is the chief information officer of California and director of the California Department of Technology. She is also chair of the California Broadband Council, a governing body with the mission to close its digital divide. She has continuously looked to utilize new technologies, used responsibly by the government, to benefit California residents.   

Tye Hayes is chief technology officer for the Department of Atlanta Information Management for the city of Atlanta. Tye is a Navy veteran and a consummate professional with over 20 years of experience as a technologist, solutions architect and business strategist within the information technology industry. She has an extensive background in IT services and has previously served as an information security officer for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, where she led the Information Security Compliance and Governance group. 

Jennifer Bradley is the founding director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute, a former attorney, and co-author, with Bruce Katz, of The Metropolitan Revolution (Brookings Press, 2013). Before joining the Aspen Institute, Jennifer was a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, where she worked on metropolitan areas in the nation's economy and politics. 

Heidi Lorenzen is a global go-to-market executive with a 35-year international career demonstrating her passion for taking fresh approaches to address unprecedented demands — and opportunities — on organizations today. Heidi is the vice president of marketing at Accela and serves as co-chair of the National League of Cities Corporate Partners Leadership Council.

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