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Stakeholders Must Support Initiatives for Tech’s Full Impact to Be Realized (Opinion)

Demonstrating how tech can augment rather than supplant city work can go a long way toward making workers more comfortable with new initiatives.

Recently one of the country’s top public-sector chief data officers (CDO) asked me a question, not so much in my academic role but more prompted by my previous positions as a mayor and deputy mayor. He said that he possessed the tools to transform an operational area of government, but wondered how to get attention and buy-in from the head of the agency.

At first this sounded counterintuitive — wouldn’t most senior public officials want a better way of delivering a service? However, as I discussed it with his colleagues, I realized this very question is perhaps the single most significant obstacle to advancement. From GIS mapping to Internet of Things sensor data, new tech initiatives are poised to radically shift nearly every corner of city government.

The potential of technology and data is considerable, but their full impact — creating cultural change that will enable tech to become a core part of government operations — can only be realized when the key city stakeholders are truly interested and understand and support the reforms. Even the most capable and ambitious technology advocate cannot change city hall single-handedly. Early tech projects in cities started with limited efforts from single advocates, but the truly transformative efforts ahead require buy-in far beyond one person.

The broadest areas of success occur when a structure is organized by the city’s chief operating officer that brings the CIO or CDO into regular “what if” conversations with agency heads, designed to promote the generation of actionable questions that can be answered with data. When I conducted this exercise as deputy mayor of New York City, we generated more than 100 specific questions. Now under a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, many of the nation’s best urban CDOs have formed the Civic Analytics Network to help the replication of approaches and apps. In order to percolate throughout a city, tech must have support and encouragement from city leadership.

Of course, data literacy and buy-in needs to permeate far more than the top levels. No matter how innovative a new predictive policing effort is, for example, it can never succeed if the city’s police officers resist integrating the technology. Public employees and officials may be concerned that their jobs will become obsolete with new technologies, or that new technologies will be used to monitor their work more closely to punish alleged underperformers. Addressing these concerns and demonstrating how tech can augment rather than supplant city work can go a long way toward making workers more comfortable with new initiatives.

Take Dallas as an example, where city administrators wanted to implement GPS tracking on garbage trucks. Workers were initially hesitant, fearing the system would be primarily used to track drivers for punitive purposes. The drivers gave the system a chance after compelling arguments from the city about how the system could improve efficiency and resource allocation. Not only did the tracking help drivers utilize more efficient routes, but it also helped the department identify and address safety concerns.

Working to gain buy-in from within city government when launching a new tech initiative can seem daunting, but the effort will pay off. Investing the time and resources to foster support across agencies ensures that the technology will be able to improve the city’s core operations. These improvements will not only lead to more effective programs, but will also increase the likelihood that innovation can permeate the city and effect durable change.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.