Part 2: An Interview with Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, CA

Posted on May 26, 2015

Civic Leaders is an exclusive local government web-interview series hosted and operated by Springbrook Software, an Accela Company, produced by the VOLSTA Media Network, and syndicated on Each month the show shares a candid look into the challenges and triumphs experienced by passionate public employees that are committed to their calling.

Part 2: Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer – City of Palo Alto, California
In part two of our talk with Jonathan, we continue the discussion on how he arrived in the Silicon Valley and the strides he’s been making in the region. Jonathan is the CIO of Palo Alto, CA and in 2013 was selected by Government Technology as a Top 25 Dreamer, Doer and Driver; he was also selected by Forbes Magazine this month as a Top 20 Social CIO in America. Here he describes his approach to attracting talent in a fierce market and how you can beef up your own strategy.

Episode Chapters:
00:31 – Making the Switch: From private to public, how’d you do it?
01:47 – Ahead Together: Mixing public and private sectors together for change.
04:28 – Open Data: Now: Your open data portal and it’s incredibly implementation story.
06:03 – To the Cloud: The cloud is here, what’s your take?
07:14 – Paying it Forward: How are you spreading your cause?
MAKING THE SWITCH: With a storied career in the private sector, including time at PricewaterhouseCoopers and O’Reilly Media, how did you make the switch to local government?
It was a cold call from an executive recruiter. I suppose they got me on a good day when I was ready to listen to the proposal. I’m open-minded, so I said tell me more. I went down to the City Manager of Palo Alto and thought he was a great guy and had a great vision. I met some other folks over the course of several weeks.
I tell people this today—I had some other offers, and this was the more unusual one for me based on my background. I thought, this is too interesting not to give it a shot. It’s too interesting not to be able to sort of look behind the curtain…how does local government really work? How can I be part of it? How can I make a difference? So, it was really interesting for me to scratch that itch, I guess you could say…
AHEAD TOGETHER: Palo Alto is at the center of the tech universe and home to countless leading-edge private companies. What does effective synergy look like between the public and private sectors?
Well there’s a saying that’s often used today that I really like; it’s that in the past we often viewed government like a vending machine. You know, you stick in a dollar, and you get a dollar’s worth of services back. There was no obligation on behalf of the person procuring the service. They basically paid taxes and they got the service. Well it’s the 21st century–it’s 2015, this model can’t continue. The complexity, the extent to the needs of government to communities are so great now that it’s not just a one-sided equation. It never really has been but it’s really moving now away from one-sided to being a joint-responsibility between community and government.
Never has there been so much need for a city entity to reach out to individuals and to private organizations to be collaborators and co-creators, to solve problems together. In fact, sometimes problems will be solved entirely in the private sector, just with the advice and the convening of the public sector. So the dynamic is very different; it makes it very interesting for me because I’ve come from the private sector and I’m still able to tap into that ecosystem. It’s surprising how many private companies and individuals are willing to step up–they really are, and probably what many cities don’t do is just ask. There’s a saying in the sales business: How many sales people actually ask for the sale? You might spend a long time trying to sell, but at some point you gotta say will you buy the product?
In the public sector, reach out to your community and say will you contribute? Will you be part of solving this problem? I have the luxury—I’m in the heart of Silicon Valley surrounded by tech companies who are of that mindset. They want to contribute, they want to partner with us. We see that partnership as absolutely key to the future of cities and the future of Palo Alto. And I think it’s up to city leaders and visionary city leaders to tap into it. Because it’s not just going to happen—it has to be made to happen.
OPEN DATA: You set out to both deliver and utilize open data for the community – how did you tackle it?
We recognized [that we were] going to move forward with open data–OK we need a platform for that. We need a place to put those data sets and have an API for stakeholders to consume that data. You think about that and you’re OK, this is another big technology project…you’ve got to do the requirements, you’ve got to find a vendor, you’ve got to deploy it—we’re probably talking about a year—not unreasonable in the public sector…and I said we don’t have a year, we gotta move fast, and how can we move fast?
We adopted some lean methods—going through the cycles of finding the vendor, implementation—but doing it more quickly. Doing it with as little overhead as possible and we did it in six weeks. We went from start to deployment in six weeks—and by the way not at great cost.
Another question I’m asked often by people is well of course Palo Alto can do that, you have plenty of money—this wasn’t a cost thing. The platform that we chose was just a few thousand dollars, so it was not a massive financial overhaul for us. But it was out approach and making it a priority. Once [we] convinced leaders of the benefit and my team, and my colleagues—once we got the platform up and started to get data on it—immediately we started to see the value of it.
TO THE CLOUD: Many agencies are on the fence about cloud computing. What is your perspective on the cloud’s role in local government?
You know, software as a service and cloud in general is probably one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to government. Because we’re not particularly good at running data centers. We have talent, but we’re not necessarily good at you know, patching the servers, replacing the hardware when necessary, keeping the technology current—and cloud and software as a service really takes care of that.
Should you be—as a government—should you be running an exchange infrastructure for your email? Where you need system admins and data center professionals, and you need Rackspace and all sorts of different technology? Or, should that just be a commodity that you basically subscribe to from the cloud? I’m going to say, I think the latter. I think we ought not be in the email business. We ought to have other people do it—and that can be extended to hundreds of different applications.
PAYING IT FORWARD: With your paradigm-changing approach to implementing your data center, as well as holding a public apps challenge, how are you extending your cause beyond Silicon Valley?
There is this high expectation that we are creating new models for government, and that we’re innovating in different ways. And part of that is absolutely true—and if we’re doing that, and others are looking to us—we ought to be sharing what were doing. We ought to be creating best practices and saying hey, this worked for us; you should try it, too!
So you’ve got to document that. You’ve got to do the hard work of saying the way we got our open data platform in six weeks was to do the following steps and you can do it, too. When we did our five- or six-month apps challenge, I personally committed to documenting [in an eBook] how we did that. So that any city, any public agency in the world could run their own apps challenge and potentially get the value of community engagement and open data—to bring the two things together. So that’s what I was driven by was this desire to share—share what we’re doing and have others really benefit from it.
To check out the free Palo Alto Apps Challenge Playbook, click here.

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