BOGO: Conference Reflections from a Chief Innovation Officer

Posted on November 14, 2016

Lessons from Code for America and the International Hispanic Network Conferences


by Nick Kittle, Chief Innovation Officer, Adams County, Colorado

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This past week I had the privilege of attending two great gatherings of diverse thought leaders in government. Despite the vastly different missions and styles of the conferences, the messages were similar and very much in line with one of the missions of ELGL: diversity is critical to transforming our communities. And respecting our differences is an important part of making us great again (double entendre intended). I want to take a few minutes to share some key takeaways from both.

summit-logo-colorThe first conference I attended last week was Code for America (CfA) in Oakland. Like Oakland itself, it was diverse gathering of people from across the United States trying to code their way to a greater America. If you’re not familiar with Code for America, it is an organization of civic coders who parachute into cities and counties and solve specific “government issues” using data and open source code to create apps that can transform service delivery and transparency to our citizens. I have been fortunate to be involved with CfA since near the start and it is as much a cult of possibility and “can do” as anything I have found in government. While the conference covered many topics, here are my top takeaways:

  • Data is important, but people are more important. While making data “open” is critical, so is what you do with it. Much of the data we use still has inherent biases for gender and race, so it is critical that you keep the focus on the rich diversity and respect the true communities we are servicing.  Don’t allow data biases or personal bias to influence social justice outcomes.
  • It is our right, our responsibility and our mandate to do better. While we as civil servants have the right to help our communities, it is our responsibility to do it better. But most importantly it is our mandate to open the data, look at problems with an honest and fresh perspective, and help each other create a better vision for our country.
  • Look across the border. Whether that border is the one to your city, your state or even your nation, there are so many people solving problems in wildly creative ways. ClientComm out of Salt Lake County (pre-trial diversion/communication), CalFresh in California (food stamps/SNAP) or GovUK (innovative web service delivery)—we can find creative solutions to problems our citizen customers face by looking outside our own bubbles. In fact, it is by far the best way to speed up the adoption of better communities is by expanding our team. I call this “Team Us” and that is why I love working with organizations like ELGL—baked in outreach and partnership with people who “get it”. So expand your bubble to solve problems faster.

And as Jen Pahlka, one of my personal heroes and founder of Code for America says:

“Government is here to do together that which we cannot do alone.”

logoThat theme of expanded outreach, diversity and social equity carried me from Oakland to Austin where I had the opportunity to join and address the International Hispanic Network (IHN) conference. I was there to speak on branding yourself in a digital age, but what I also got was a great understanding of the challenges and amazing opportunities that expanding our diversity can provide. In fact, you could say that one of the themes of both CfA and IHN was to begin the end of the “Old White Guy” paradigm. While I would argue that OWG syndrome is a function of personality and mindset over actually being a problem for all old white guys, it is clear that this homogeneity and traditional thinking has created a culture at the top of many organizations that does not prize diversity and service to all, but rather a pervasive undermining of our founding principles. In essence, our lack of diversity at the top of most American government organizations encourages, intentionally or not, the suppression of those we are trying to serve.

At IHN, I learned how about the role that Machismo vs Marianismo plays in traditional Hispanic culture, and how breaking stereotypes of all kinds are so critical to creating a high functioning service delivery system to all our communities. But the key takeaways for me are:

  • Hispanics are underrepresented in leadership roles in government throughout the country to a spectacular degree. In some cases, this is because of cultural challenges and in some cases this is because of the challenge of integrating with a traditionally white leadership structure that prizes more of the same and not diverse input. In fact, according to one panel member there are only 20 Latina City Managers in the whole country!
  • There is a great deal of diversity in Hispanic culture and a general lack of understanding about that. Hispanic, Latino, Mexican, Cuban, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, etc. and these cultures can be vastly different, so the need to simplify our understanding of these diversities into “Hispanic” is a vast understatement that does not respect or reflect their differences. In the same vein, the need has never been greater to speak with one voice about the profile of the Hispanic community.
  • That education continues to be a silver bullet in equalizing the playing field for Hispanics in the long run. Education is critical to expanding opportunities, changing paradigms and allowing people to shape their paths.

While these thoughts swirl around my head on the day after an election that clearly divided our country in some profound and disturbing ways, I am calmed by the thought of so many amazing people working together to create a stronger dynamic for the future of our country and our communities. All for one and one for all.

These conferences made clear that our leaders need to reflect our communities and we need to demystify the truth via data and discussion so we can serve citizens and build greater places.  That we are in this together and diversity is the first step, not the last. That we can build a better future together than we can apart.

That we are all part of “Team Us” and while there is hard work to do, we are not alone. And that its time to take a deep breath, wake up to the truth of our challenges and get back to work—because our citizens deserve it.

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