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Creating an Equitable City in St. Paul, Minn.

For CIO Sharon Kennedy Vickers, residents are at the heart of St. Paul's IT goals.

“User-centric” is quickly becoming a core value for technology leaders, and St. Paul, Minn., CIO Sharon Kennedy Vickers is putting it into practice. An IT veteran with a civic tech background, Kennedy Vickers has been in her role since January, and residents are central to her approach to driving the city forward. She comes to the CIO’s office after working with the city for five years as a consultant. Kennedy Vickers is also the co-founder of Blacks in Technology Twin Cities and works with civic hackathon Code Switch, both of which keep her engaged with the community and focused on ensuring equity in technology.

1. What has been your approach so far to St. Paul’s IT needs?

For us to be successful, I’d like to focus on ensuring that we take a user-centered approach to everything we do, across the department and across the enterprise. We need to ensure that users are at the heart of everything we do and that we engage them as co-creators of the services that they will ultimately utilize in a real and a meaningful way. 

What I’ve been focusing on the last six months is basically people, processes, and some of our products and getting to understand those, and making sure our people have the skill sets that they need for us to make sure we’re moving to this digital transformation age, as well as our processes. What are our processes? Do they align with an agile framework? And I think if those two things are put in place we will ultimately produce great products.

2. How does IT fit into the city’s equity initiative?

If our data suggests that there are some improvements we can make in ensuring that our snowplowing, our emergency management, any of our systems can be more equitable, how do we do that? How do we address that? How can we be creative in doing so? 

We are developing an overarching data strategy that’s in alignment with mayoral priorities. I’m meeting with city department heads, and we’re going to be looking at our values, which are equity, innovation and resiliency, and the mayor’s initiatives: lifelong learning, community first, public safety, economic justice and inclusion. So each department head will be charged with identifying data that they collect in those six areas. Then the next step will be for us to get that data into our open data portal. 

3. What does your civic tech background bring to the CIO’s office?

If you want to build an innovation economy in St. Paul, it has to be inclusive. Code Switch is a civic hackathon, and we’re very intentional about that space being inclusive, ensuring communities of color are there and actively participating, and letting folks know that it’s not just technologists and hackers. It is about identifying problems and thinking about how data and technology can solve those. It’s another opportunity for engagement and tackling some of the challenges or opportunities that exist within our city through our data and technology. That work will continue and has real application for my role because it allows me to engage with people from different sectors. It allows for that user-centered approach, asking residents to be co-creators in our services.

4. How do you fill the need for skilled tech staff?

I’m interested in investing in the talent that we have, and I’d like to draw that out. I’m meeting with every member of my staff to understand who they are, the work that they do, what they want to do, how they want to grow and figure out how we can invest in the talent that we currently have. It’s not always about going out and getting more talent or other people, but about looking within and seeing what talent we have and how we can make investments in those individuals so that they can help push the organization forward.

Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.