Urban legends

Urban legends

How three municipal council CIOs are pushing the boundaries of what technology can achieve for their organisations and the community

When Chris Vein was made San Francisco’s first CIO in 2001, municipal governments were considered technological dinosaurs.

The city’s roughly 53 decentralised departments were in disparate stages of IT readiness: some had state-of-the-art technology, others had none. To overcome the internal barriers, Vein capitalised on apparent negatives like the shrinking city budget.

“Oftentimes, a crisis is helpful to get what you want,” he says. “It creates a sense of urgency, making it easier to work with people.”

Vein approached being a municipal CIO from the standpoint of a ‘social activist’. By focusing on grassroots-level communication and “always trying new things”, he transformed San Francisco into a purveyor of IT for the masses and, in effect, earned the city a global reputation as a groundbreaker in e-government and democracy. He was particularly noted for pioneering open-source and open data initiatives.

“Although CIOs now have greater purview, most of them are not out there solving social problems,” he says. “Technology helps us address the age-old question of how to govern better and more effectively.” He said that he wanted to change the way government gets done, with people – the public, individuals and organisations – seeing it as a platform on which they could build their own solutions.

The secret to achieving any internal change, he says, is to make it part of the program. “Beg, borrow, and steal any technology and committed people you can find” and incorporate them into sturdy, cross-departmental trust networks and seize opportunities to promote your cause.

“Find a window and build momentum, test things and keep evolving. Once your project is part of the program, it becomes very difficult to stop or slow down.”

In early 2011, Vein left San Francisco and made the move to Washington as Deputy US Chief Technology Officer, where he worked at the Office of Science and Technology Policy focusing on government innovation.

As recently as December of last year, he made another move, this time to chief innovation officer for the World Bank’s Global Information and Communications Technology Development.

If there were any indications that municipalities are far from a backwater or a dead-end for IT professional ambition, then Vein’s moves set an indisputable example for how it can be done.

And he’s not alone in pushing municipal operations into the outer boundaries of what technology can achieve for the organisation and the greater community. And remember, rarely do CIOs have a list of stakeholders numbering in the millions.

Different places, same views

The City of Melbourne’s CIO, Colin Fairweather, puts the concept of the city in context. “We’ve moved from a notion in the 19th century around empires, and the 20th century around nations,” he says. “I think the 21st century is now around cities.

“Cities around the world are now seen as the economic drivers of countries, and Melbourne’s no different.”

Colin Fairweather, CIO, City of Melbourne

Melbourne aims to be an innovative trendsetter for cities around the globe, Fairweather says. “There are some challenges in getting yourself recognised internationally, but we’re seen as doing a lot of clever things.”

The position of CIO has only existed in Melbourne for eight years. Fairweather has held the position for two years and was an internal appointment. The city had two previous CIOs who were outside hires. “We were like most organisations and came out of an information technology group. ICT has been seen as separate from the business, almost as a black box.”

The role of CIO has changed, from just being about technology to “delivering business services and being an enabler for the business,” he says. “There’s a lot more engagement and IT has become a department within the business rather than being separate from the business.”

The evolving role of the CIO is reflected in the fact that Fairweather’s background is in information management and not specifically IT.

“I really love the city as a brand and my focus is on the strategy of the city,” he says.

At almost the opposite end of the country, the Brisbane City Council proudly proclaims itself to be the biggest city in Australia, if not the world. This might be based on a technicality - the metropolitan area is covered by a single council rather than the multitude of local government authorities you see in most cities - but largest or not, the role of a CIO is nonetheless still a challenge.

I really love the city as a brand and my focus is on the strategy of the city

The Council has had a CIO position for more than 10 years, and the role has “matured” over the years, says CIO Nick Brant. As with Fairweather, Brant says this has entailed moving “from solely having a technology focus to a partnership approach, working with colleagues to meet business outcomes and deliver efficiencies and capabilities”.

Nick Brant, CIO, Brisbane City Council

“There are a significant number of systems in Council and a reliance on technology for business operations.

“Having initiated replacement or refurbishment of the core technical infrastructure requirements, the biggest opportunities now are information - the provision of the right information to the right people at the right time - and mobile computing, enabling field workers to access systems in real time wherever they are."

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Tags San FranciscoCity of MelbourneBrisbane City CouncilCity of Chicago

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