Disrupting municipal government

Opinion by Anna-Sofia Lesiv
Feb. 17, 2017, 2:01 a.m.

Jonathan Reichental travels the world to talk about Open Data, podcast and attend tech conferences. His Instagram is smattered with shots of Italian facades, Viennese palaces and the Canadian rockies. His tweets proclaim, “In 25 years, it will be forbidden to drive cars,” while his blog posts muse on topics ranging from robots to space travel. You might think he’s a highly paid Silicon Valley executive. Instead, he’s the chief information officer of Palo Alto.

Most people don’t realize that cities even have chief information officers, and generally, they don’t. Reichental was named one of the top 20 CIOs in the United States, but among a list of corporate executives, he was the only public employee. Other cities are, however, catching up.

In 2014, Mountain View created a similar position headed by Roger Jensen in an attempt to scale up its own information operation. However, no one quite compares to the stature Reichental has taken on for himself. In many ways, “chief information officer” doesn’t suffice. Reichental likes, instead, to think of himself as a “chief inspiration officer.”

Apart from handling the gritty bits of the IT department, like ensuring the security and performance of employees’ emails, Reichental is responsible for crafting the vision of Palo Alto’s technological future.

Under his watch, Palo Alto developed an impressive open source database for all types of city information— data.cityofpaloalto.org displays raw data on development center permits, library checkout statistics and the amount of water and electricity being used by residential areas compared to commercial ones. The database even provides geospatial data mapping the local of trees around the city. Residents can download the PaloAlto311 app, made by New York City company PublicStuff, to report potholes, bent traffic signs and graffiti and alert a need for service.

Recently, the city has also been putting up sensors all over the city. Collected data can be tracked on city.swim.it. At any particular moment, the site will tell you how many cars are on Palo Alto’s streets as well as how busy the streets are.

The department of IT’s annual budget is $11.7 million, which might not seem like much when compared to Palo Alto’s capacious local revenues, but that’s partially the point. Innovations the kind Reichental is trying to install are not meant to be expensive luxuries, but cost savers that make the work of government all the more efficient. According to the department of Information Technology, digital interactions with the local government are 80 percent cheaper than the cost of direct interactions.

As a result, more and more cities are transforming into “Reichentalian” centers of innovation.

Fresh ideas and breakthroughs from the technological private sector are increasingly penetrating the world of government operations. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this comes in the form of Reichental himself. Having worked for 20 years in the private sector, Reichental decided to enter public service to usher innovation into city administration.

On his blog, Reichental quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” That longing is what the CIO himself feels when he envisions a world of residents collaborating to produce apps improving city life for fellow citizens, a world where civic engagement is never more than a click away, a world in the Internet of Things.

Under the leadership of chief inspiration officers like Palo Alto’s Jonathan Reichental, it’s also a world that’s not too far away.


Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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