Spotlight: Jonathan Reichental, City of Palo Alto

JR_headshotDr. Jonathan Reichental, currently the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the City of Palo Alto, Calif., is an award-winning technology leader whose 20-year career has spanned both the private and public sectors. In 2013 he was recognized as one of the 25 doers, dreamers, and drivers in government in America. He also won a best CIO in Silicon Valley award and a national IT leadership prize.

His innovative work in government has also been recognized by the White House. Dr. Reichental works with his teams to apply technology innovation in organizations to create new value and to enable work to be more meaningful and fun. He is a popular writer and public speaker on a wide range of technology and business related topics.

We recently asked Jonathan to talk more about his successful community engagement efforts in Palo Alto.

With your experience in community engagement, can you tell us what methods of outreach and platforms work well for you?

It’s important to acknowledge that community engagement takes many forms. Let’s not forget the basics. I’ve found that an old-school presentation and discussion at a community event or chairing a committee can be effective. Of course, technology is providing us with a growing list of completely new engagement tools. They must be used thoughtfully and carefully. Social media, when done right, has helped us with outreach efforts.

To get our community energized and engaged, community events that mix in-person activities with technology have had good results. Our CityCamp event in 2013 brought out 5,000 people for a one-day festival of civic innovation. It took significant effort, but we believe it was a game-changer that created credibility for us to engage the community on a wide range of future challenges.

How do you prepare certain data, and how do you choose specific sets of data for a hacking event?

We don’t do that. Palo Alto is now an open data by default city. This means that we aspire to make all our non-protected data easily accessible by people and machines. There’s a governance process to get data onto our open data portal ( This means the data is made ready in an optimum fashion for anyone or thing to consume. If a hacking event anticipates a dataset we don’t have readily available yet on our open data site, we’ll quickly try to accommodate that request.

How are you tying back these outreach activities to your job description? Would you change it after all of these outreach activities?

While about 70 percent of my work is traditional CIO work: ensuring systems are running every day and City staff have the best technology tools to get their jobs done; the remainder of my work is largely civic innovation and community engagement. We’re working hard to reduce the traditional work through automation, cloud computing and other innovation, and focus more on the civic work. That’s where I believe the future lies. Building smart cities is going to require a large focus on outreach. Every CIO requires these responsibilities in their job description.

You describe your current apps challenge as a platform to encourage STEM processes, what other education efforts are you doing or have you seen that are successful for the non-coders?

It’s a privilege to be the CIO at the City of Palo Alto because it provides me with a unique platform to experiment and share lessons-learned as we explore new ways of delivering local government. As the heart and birthplace of Silicon Valley, we get a lot of attention both nationally and internationally. As a result, almost everything we do is an education effort. As an example, we’ve been experimenting with a social collaboration platform at City Hall with mixed results. At a recent government conference I was able to share this story, both the good and bad. We value education and I make it part of my job.

How do you ensure that the energy, efforts, and relationships formed during a hack event are sustained?

When the City of Palo Alto runs an event, we do it at scale. Elected officials, tech companies, media, and a wide range of other stakeholders are engaged. This creates momentum that carries into and beyond the event. That said, participants ultimately shoulder most of the burden of sustaining activities. My view is that a local government can convene and create the conditions for civic innovation to take place, but it relies heavily on the magic that happens between motivated participants.

What advice do you have for other gov. staff working on public engagement and hacking events?

I’d encourage cities to make technology-related public engagement efforts and events core to the operations of their city. These efforts and events can’t be a side-show. This means that most departments need to get engaged and offer assistance to ensure success.

Local government has power as a convener. Leverage that. Local government has valuable data. Liberate it. But most importantly, demonstrate that your agency is a partner and collaborator. Many people tell me it’s hard to connect and engage with government leaders at city halls across America. We are way overdue to fix that.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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