Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Rachel Haot Revolutionized City Government. Now She’s Working At The State Level, and Wants Your Input

July 24, 2014
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Rachel Haot Revolutionized City Government. Now She’s Working At The State Level, and Wants Your Input
Rachel Haot
Rachel Haot at TechCrunch Disrupt 2014. flickr/TechCrunch
This is how you make government more open and connected.

Rachel Haot was first amazed by computers when she was eight. She logged onto IBM’s early Internet service, Prodigy, to play checkers. “It was the coolest thing,”she told The Verge.

Twenty years later, in January 2011, Haot became New York City’s first Chief Digital Officer (CDO). It was her job to write a Digital Roadmap in 90 days, but also to define the CDO role. She was the first person to hold that title in any major American city, and her work has changed our cities’ attitudes to 21st-century tools.

Like Bloomberg, Haot is a technology entrepreneur. In 2006, she founded GroundReport, one of the first citizen journalism outlets. Her insight was that anyone with a phone can be a primary source for breaking news. Which is why on the GroundReport platform, anyone can submit an article or media for publication. Advancements in personal technology meant to Haot that “the crowd” isn’t just a scattering of passive readers, but a mass intelligence eager to contribute to everything.

During Haot’s four years as CEO of GroundReport, she saw the power of this principle as more than 7,000 people around the world contributed text, images, and video to the site. When Mayor Bloomberg approached her to make NYC Internet-awesome, she left GroundReport and moved to City Hall. Her transition from one job to another should, in theory, be seamless. The idea behind GroundReport — that the collaboration of many ordinary people can supply extraordinary value — also makes sense as political science. Journalism and democracy both work better when they’re more open and inclusive.

But in practice, she faced an uphill battle. NYC is arguably the intellectual capital of the world, but ancient IT systems and clunky bureaucracy bogged down City Hall. And then there was the culture. Another Bloomberg staffer, Stephen Goldsmith, was Deputy Mayor when Haot arrived and worked regularly with her. He said that getting departments to embrace new technologies like social media and data analytics was “very difficult.”

“New York City is a huge platform of information,” Goldsmith says. “When Rachel arrived, it was underdeveloped, underutilized, not personalized — just waiting for social media to unlock it.”

In the spring of 2011, Haot’s office published the “Roadmap for the Digital City,” which recommended a series of steps to make NYC the best at “Internet access, open government, citizen engagement and digital industry growth.” Some ideas included: installing public WiFi hotspots in parks and subways, investing in digital education and Internet access for low-income families and redesigning nyc.gov.

The benefits of open source collaboration and the importance of a great user experience have been obvious to Haot since she was very young. But her other talent is spreading computer literacy. Haot also has a knack for showing the technologically hesitant how the Internet can make their jobs easier.

Which is the main thing that needs getting done at state and local governments, says Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institute and co-author of “The Metropolitan Revolution.” “Digital is not something one person does,” she says. “It’s an approach a government has internally and externally. Digital has to be infused into everything.” Haot told A Smarter Planet she begins her conversation with other department heads by asking what their goals are. Then, she “backs into talk about digital tools” in pursuit of those goals.

Last fall, NYC announced that 100 percent of the Roadmap’s projects had been completed. Then in December, Haot announced she’d be taking the position of Deputy Secretary for Technology for New York State. Goldsmith, reflecting on the cultural change wrought by Haot, says, “The staff matured a lot in the time that she was there. In the end, there was much more of an appetite for digital.”

Now, from her new perch in Albany, New York, she’s issued the following challenge to NationSwell readers:

“How can we in government improve our service delivery and performance by embracing digital tools? How can we support a vibrant tech ecosystem statewide? Broadly: How do we realize the State’s innovative potential?”

Help her out by taking action using the button on the left.

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