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Thinking About the Next Chief Digital Officer of New York City

When governments go through leadership changes, it is generally expected that their whole staff gets replaced.  It's a bit weird to comprehend for those on the outside.  When a new CEO for a company is hired, you might change out a few people, but you wouldn't replace all the key folks.  The turnover would be detrimental to company culture.  

Same goes for a baseball team.  You wouldn't hire a new GM and just immediately get rid of your All-Star players.  

But, this is government.  It's not the real world.  :)

That means that just about every position is going to be up for grabs, including the newly created Chief Digital Officer position held by Rachel Haot.  I was asked who I thought should get it, and my first response was, "So, what do you want that person to do?"  Obviously, each person is going to handle their job in their own way, but I thought it would be useful to go back to the first press release describing the job.

It says the job is about:

"...improving communication with residents and businesses by enhancing government transparency and working closely with digital media. Sterne will work closely with the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications as well as with individual City agencies and stakeholders to ensure consistency and accessibility of information. This is the first time the City has hired someone to streamline digital media communications across a broad array of City agencies. Sterne is tasked with helping to make NYC.gov more user-friendly, ensuring that agencies integrate social media opportunities and serving as an advocate for the digital media industry in New York City."

On one hand, it sounds a bit like PR...  mentions of communications, information, advocacy, etc.  I'd contend, though, that it's actually a product manager job.

Think about it...

 

  • Communicates with stakeholders--both internal and external
  • Works with tech
  • Insures consistency across products
  • Makes the user experience on the web better
  • Keeper of the vision of the digital experience that is the city government

 

That's what product managers do.  They figure out what everyone needs by talking to everyone, and then enables both business and technical stakeholders to work together--since, as Office Space taught us, you can't have the customers talking directly to the engineers.  

Plus, product managers excel at getting other people to work on things that are not their direct reports.  They don't have their own staffs, and tech doesn't report to them.  They're responsible for a product, but they have to work collaboratively.  That feels a lot like what someone working to coordinate the efforts of multiple city departments would have to do. 

Speaking of multiple city departments, the role currently sits within the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, but that's probably not exactly the right place for it.  It should probably report to both MOME and DOITT, the city's tech arm that actually builds and maintains the tech that the goverment users, at the same time.  That's usually where product sits--with dotted lines to both the marketing/business and technology functions of a company.

So who should it be?

Here's a name for you:  Jenn Vargas.

She's a product manager who is also a designer and developer.  She's from the NYC area (Bayonne, NJ) and she went to Cornell--the school at the heart of NYC's tech education expansion.  She spent time on the west coast, but then came back to work at standout NYC tech companies like Etsy and Birchbox. Jenn has also taught at General Assembly--and if you're going to get government online, you're definitely going to have to do some teaching.

Plus, she fits my two criteria for the job:

1) She's awesome.

2) She probably doesn't want the job.  (In fact, she has no idea that I'm writing this.)

This is the kind of job that would come with a ton of visibility so there are going to be a bunch of people who would want it.  That's exactly what you don't want--someone who wants the job to make themselves visible.

You would best be served to have someone who would absolutely dread getting dragged to press conferences and would rather just work to make a product great.  We've come a long way with our nice new website and better social presence, but there's lots of work still to do.  Bandwidth is at third world levels and open wifi is rare, to pick out an easy one.

Obviously, we'd need to consider a slate of candidates--and if this is truly a position that involves transparency, why not crowdsource some leeds?  Bill DeBlasio should just post a tweet asking for suggestions.  Get all the minds working!  If anything, that was a knock on the Bloomberg administration--doing whatever they wanted behind closed doors.

If you're going to break from politics as usual, why not have an in depth, public discussion about the role?  Heck, post it as a Quora question.  

Who should be the next Chief Digital Officer of New York City?

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