Some reflections on my time in public service
For the past year, I’ve had the privilege to serve as the Chief Data Officer for the City of Los Angeles.
It has been a privilege, an honor. To say the least.
After a wonderfully educational and illuminating year, I’ve decided this ride is over.
There’s much more I’ll likely write about my experience and my learnings, but a few essential thoughts come to mind as I wrap up my brief stint in the public sector:
- Ask some questions: What I found myself doing in meeting after meeting as just asking questions. “What about this,” “How about this option,” or “Could we try this?” Mostly this was for my education — my way to learn why things were the way they were. But sometimes this turned out to be fruitful. One time I was in a meeting where a department wanted to build a new mobile app (and spend countless dollars) and it turned out all they needed to do was just mobile-optimize their website. These are small, but meaningful wins. Indeed, the best compliment I ever received in this job was a few months in, “You’re already changing the way people in the city think about problems.”
- Show some love: To say that public service is a thankless job is an understatement. The way most interact with a government official is to complain. But here’s the thing: our governments do wonderful work. Based on my experience at Code for America, I walked into City Hall last year with a list of things I wanted to do. Guess what? Most — if not all — were already in place. In fact, the what’s often decried as the plague of innovation in the public sector, the procurement office, already had dashboard, price matching, and performance management. But too often those “innovations” — or more actually, doing a good job — go overlooked. What I realized was that the most useful thing I could do as a newcomer was to show appreciation and respect. Because they deserved it.
- Find some allies: The city of Los Angeles has over 40,000 employees. That alone is a sizable force. But the city proper has 100X that. I found that so many of those 4M were more than interested, they were committed, to helping the city work better. Groups like Hack for LA and the Civic Innovation Lab emerged over the time I was in Los Angeles, and they put hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours into using technology for the public good. As a city official, all I had to do was show up and be there; they did the rest. (And maybe cheerlead a little bit.) That’s a force multiplier. I’m forever grateful to those passionate citizens who made the LA civic tech community what it is now.
All that said, no one should ever think public service is an easy task. It’s hard. But meaningful. My greatest thanks go out to the people who made this possible for me, the people who continue on this important task, and the people I hope will follow into it in the future.