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James Keene

City Manager, Palo Alto, Calif.

James Keene, City Manager, Palo Alto, Calif.
Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

What is the purpose of local government? Is its primary responsibility to deliver services? Or should it do something more, such as convene and facilitate with the people and businesses that make up the community? That latter point fits the philosophy of James Keene, city manager of Palo Alto, Calif. “We try to recognize more overtly in our community that government is a partnership between citizens and their representatives,” he said.

In public service for many years, Keene’s ideas remain fresh and thoughtful. Last year, he and his CIO Jonathan Reichental wrote an article that criticized local government’s traditional mindset about information technology. City managers don’t usually take a public stand on IT. But Keene and Reichental spelled out five key problems and offered solutions.

The problems, ranging from traditional big-bang development and bureaucratic centralization to federalism and hardware ownership, are not new. “Part of the problem is the practical issue of operating and maintaining IT as a business,” said Keene. “It’s beyond government’s capacity to do all that — buy, develop, apply, maintain and secure.”

Keene would like to see local governments move to the cloud, use agile development, and create opportunities for more collaboration with the private sector and private citizens. At the same time, he believes cities must rethink their assets, from streetlights to parking meters, which can be turned into digital tools.

But a city doesn’t become innovative and more effective by changing how it obtains and uses technology. You have to build trust and think like a startup, according to Keene. “That’s the mindset we need to have, so we can scale up solutions that not only make our city a better place, but help make other cities better as well.” 


With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.