Computing Profession

Meet The Municipal Chief Digital Officer

The Capital, a new innovation hub managed by Brisbane, Australia's chief digital officer.
In Brisbane, Australia, Chief Digital Officer Cat Matson oversees a wide range of activity, including helping to run the city's new three-story innovation hub called The Capital (center).

Look at who is running technology in your local City Hall: chances are, you will find people with familiar titles, such as chief information officer, or chief technology officer, or maybe even both. Soon, you might spot another chief, if you haven't already: the chief digital officer (CDO).

Just as private enterprise started to do a decade or so ago, city governments are beginning to welcome the CDO. Starting with New York in 2011 and followed by Brisbane in 2012 (Australia has taken a leading role in the nascent movement), a small but increasing number of metropolises are now tapping CDOs to help their cities, people, businesses embrace today's digital ways.

Exactly what they do can be as varied as digital life and work itself.

In New York and Brisbane, for instance, the job resides in economic development departments and includes, among other activities, fostering the technology start-up community.

In Boston, it falls under the watch of the Chief Information Office (CIO); much of the early work there has focused on an impressive overhaul of the city's Website, while efforts are underway to make “open data” more usable to citizens.

Regardless of whether the objective is to modernize a Website, promote start-ups, help businesses digitize their operations, turn “open data” in something useful, foster the development of smart cities, install cellular telephone service in subways, or something else, the municipal CDO reflects a possible delivery on the under-delivered promise that information technology (IT) can indeed blend well with people and the way they think, live, act, and work.

If nothing else, the city CDO's job is emerging as one that could help finally end the concept of “technology for technology's sake.” A CDO thinks long and hard about the relevance of any IT process to the city's businesses and citizens. In a sense, the post is a tacit admission that a lot of the decades-long talk about how IT truly serves people with what they need has come with a heavy dose of lip service. Cities are now hiring CDOs to add conviction to those assertions.

“I often joke that I should be called the chief analog officer, not the chief digital officer, because I'm always coming back to ‘where is the human benefit’?” says Cat Matson, Brisbane’s CDO. “If a technology is not adding value to people's lives, let's not do it.”

Jon Cumming echoes that philosophy 170 miles away in Canberra, where he serves as CDO for that city, as a big part of his job as CDO for the wider Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

“All CDO roles seem to be a little different, and the first part of the job is to figure out exactly what the job is,” says Cumming, who joined ACT as its inaugural CDO in August 2015. “But the CDO is about people first and foremost – and about what people, as our customers, mean to our organization, and how we respond to their needs.”

Cumming explains, “The change from CIO to CDO is profound and simple. Often unfairly, the CIO role is seen to be about infrastructure, technology, control, risk minimization and enforcing process. That is a very different starting point. The use of technology is a common thread, but the CDO has the freedom to dream bigger.

“For me, the role presented a unique opportunity to shape and influence digital transformation in a way that has largely been beyond the preconceptions that surround CIO roles. The perception of CIOs is often that of 'chief IT operations officer.' My role is anything but that. My conversations and influence can therefore start at a more strategic and forward-looking place.”

Cumming has good insight into both roles. Before joining ACT as CDO, he was CIO for the New Zealand Department of Corrections (where he says he eventually morphed the job into more of a CDO function).

Economic Development

In Canberra, the CDO job resides in what is called the Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate, where Cumming reports to the head of service for the ACT government. His remit sweeps across economic development, digital services, and digital tools. Already, he has developed an online procedure that speeds up government purchases from small businesses; started using the Web to make it easier for new parents to make health appointments for their newborns, and provided online access to learning material for students using Google apps. Also, on what Cumming calls the “nuts and bolts level,” Canberra offers city-wide free Wi-Fi, is running a smart parking trial, practices open data, and is investigating the possibilities of developing an Internet of Things (IoT) backbone.

Like Cumming, Brisbane CDO Matson also plies her trade in one of the city's economic development outfits, the Brisbane Marketing Economic Development Board. “I have nothing to do with what computers we use, or with cabling anything,” she notes. That job belongs to Brisbane CIO Sarma Rajaraman, who is responsible for IT and ICT (information and communication technology) infrastructure. Matson and Rajaraman do, of course, collaborate on certain projects, but their jobs reside in separate city divisions.

“I think a CDO is distinct to a CIO or CTO (chief technology officer) in that it is more strategic in the overarching paradigm of digital, and not just thinking of the actual pieces of hardware that are being used,” says Matson. “My role is more external-facing and ambassadorial. I'm the one who's talking and leading and inspiring about digital transformation, leading our digital strategy to residents and small business owners.”

Matson describes the “three pillars” of her role as:

  • training small business in digital skills and strategies, such as social media;
  • providing the start-up tech community with facilities, guest lecturers, grants, and other assistance, including a new three-story, 2,100-square-meter co-working and events facility; and
  • developing “smart city” operations, such as outfitting streetlight poles with traffic management sensors that help direct emergency service vehicles.

The processes she develops typically can avoid new technology implementations. “I'm less interested in creating new things than in helping people do what they want to do,” says Matson, who became Brisbane's second CDO in September 2014, succeeding Kieran O'Hea, who initiated the job in 2012. While her previous job was as CEO of Australian social media start-up HEARIS, her background is not in technology , but in marketing and consulting to help small businesses and entrepreneurs develop strategies and deploy digital tools.

Relatable Data

One of Matson's current projects entails making the city's open data more useful to its citizens and businesses. “People want information; they don't necessarily want data sets,” she notes. “So, for example, a property developer might want information about population, average income, number of takeaway joints in an area, number of schools, number of pre-schools, the number of parks, and information about surrounding districts. All that information doesn't exist in one data set. Single data sets only make sense when other pieces of the puzzle are there.”

Meanwhile, Boston's first-ever CDO, Lauren Lockwood, has embarked on a similar project. She and her team are developing software that makes “open data” comprehensible to the average citizen. While Lockwood's group does not look after an open data collection (that job belongs to chief data officer Andrew Therriault), it wants to ensure the public is able to make sense of the reams of data the city collects and makes available.

“We received a large grant from the Knight Foundation to think about how do you make data more accessible for people,” says Lockwood. “Because publishing a spreadsheet with a bunch of incomprehensible fields, you know, it's just not very helpful to view if they don't know how to use it.”

Lockwood describes her general mission as CDO as “changing how people perceive government, and how they engage with government using digital tools.”

She became Boston's first CDO in December 2014. Soon afterward, she ran focus groups that uncovered a lot of skepticism toward government—“no surprise there,” she says—and revealed that citizens had trouble using the city's Website to access information and conduct business.

Lockwood led a Website overhaul that included, among other things, making it easier to use, and toning down the language (which previously had been written “on a post-graduate level,” she says). By January 2016, she has four new pilot pages available to the public, while keeping the existing city site live. She steadily loaded more pages onto the pilot site until July 20, when Boston moved overnight from the old site to a new one. Each iteration also aimed to make the site more accessible and readable to all groups, including people with disabilities and immigrants, she said.

‘The PDF Killer’

While the redesign marked an early milestone in citizen friendliness and engagement, many more are coming. Lockwood wants eventually to eliminate the need for users to download PDF forms, which she says can wreak havoc with different computers and gadgets supporting different levels of compatibility. The goal is to offer a simpler, more direct form that eliminates the tedious, multi-step PDF process.

“We have a guy in the team called the 'PDF killer,'” says Lockwood. That person, Josh Gee, has eradicated PDF forms from some processes, such as application forms for parking spaces and for CPR training.

Along the same lines, Lockwood's staff of around 10 includes a person dedicated to constantly improving the Website and refreshing it once a week. As obvious as that role might sound and as commonplace as it is in private enterprise (where Lockwood used to work), she says it has typically not existed in municipal government. “It used to be called ‘project manager,’ implying that it had a finish,” she recalls. “The fact there had never been one in Boston before, when I tell that to people, their jaws drop.”

As CDO, Lockwood reports to CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge, who in turn reports to Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Lockwood’s CDO role contrasts to that of Sree Sreenivasan, the new CDO of New York City, where the job largely entails supporting New York's start-up culture. Sreenivasan is New York's third CDO—the city’s first, Rachel Haot, initiated the job in 2011, and was succeeded by Jessica Singleton in January 2014. Sreenivasan, a technology reporter and Journalism teacher at Columbia University, spent three years as CDO of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art before becoming the city’s CDO.

New York's Tech Team

New York City is ratcheting up its technology efforts across several fronts, not all of which fall in the CDO bailiwick. A week after Sreenivasan assumed his CDO duties, New York hired a new CTO, Miguel Gamiño Jr., to go along with a robust team including Sreenivasan as CDO; CIO Anne Roest, who also is commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and chief analytics officer Amen Ra Mashariki.

When the city announced Gamiño's hiring, a city spokesperson explained Sreenivasan's role as “to promote access to City government through technology and (serve) as the City's primary liaison to the tech start-up community,” noting, “he directs the Office of Digital Strategy (NYC Digital) to launch digital products that encourage civic engagement, increase government transparency, and support New York City's thriving tech ecosystem.”

Whereas Boston's Lockwood reports to the city's CIO, Sreenivasan's job, like those of Matson in Brisbane and Cumming in Canberra, resides in economic development. He reports to Alicia Glen, New York's deputy mayor for housing and economic development.

In comparison, New York CIO Roest reports to first deputy mayor Anthony Shorris, and oversees the city's technology infrastructure and cyber security. CTO Gamiño, reporting to Shorris, drives the city's broadband program, as well as its Internet of Things and “smart city” initiatives. Chief analytics officer Mashariki, reporting to Mindy Tarlow, director of the mayor’s office of operations, holds many of the city's open data responsibilities.

New York's emphasis on the CDO as point person for the start-up culture goes back to Haot, the city's first CDO, who helped foster cooperation between academia and business, notes David Mathison, founder of the New York City-based CDO Club, which runs “CDO Summit” conferences around the world for chief digital officers and chief data officers.

One thing that differentiates municipal chief digital officers from those in private enterprise, notes Mathison, is that while brick-and-mortar industry started embracing the role a decade ago to help stave off threats from cyber startups, city CDOs have emerged with a different mindset.

“The first sectors were those affected by disruption,” says Mathison. Media companies like MTV and NBC Universal were among the first to deploy CDOs, to establish a digital strategy that would ward off threats from net forces like YouTube. Soon, hospitality and transportation companies were doing likewise, in the face of incursions from entities such as Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft.

“Cities aren't really affected by disruption,” he notes. “It's more of an offensive posture than defensive.”

Not that city CDOs don't bring their own form of internal disruption.

“Above all, my role is to inspire, coax, cajole, persuade, influence, incentivize, convince, and encourage the Government’s business and technology leaders so we create a cohesive plan for our ‘smart city’,” says Cumming. “We do not have the resources to do everything, so everything we do must count.

“There are two common themes that always seem to come through. The first is the focus on ‘customer,’ and for government entities that have for years been trained to ‘just follow process,’ that can require a huge cultural shift. The second is the theme of disruption, and I want to qualify that as being constructive disruption. It is not enough to go around causing organizational carnage; the disruption must disrupt ineffective ways of doing things with new and progressive services.”

Watch for a CDO coming to a city near you soon.

Mark Halper is a freelance journalist based near Bristol, England. He covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles.

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