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Innovate for Change, Santa Clara CIO Says

As portrayed by TV, Silicon Valley, California oozes unconscionable affluence. Apple AirPods and glass-faced buildings characterize a technology-anchored, futuristic civilization where wealth has been normalized. Just the title says it all – Silicon Valley was so named for the computer chips that power video games, laptops and cell phones.

But, as has now been picked up by news agencies, there’s a flip side to the story. The perception of Silicon Valley as an oasis of wealth belies the truth that it’s like much of America, where society’s most underprivileged are knocked down by challenge after challenge.

Those are the very people government is supposed to help up.

“It’s a very expensive place to live. We have a lot of issues of homelessness and food insecurity,” Ann Dunkin, Chief Information Officer of the County of Santa Clara, said. Dunkin was the keynote during GovLoop’s “Gov Innovators Virtual Summit” Wednesday, speaking to how innovation in the public sector can help solve some of communities’ most intractable challenges.

To respond to the problem of hunger in Santa Clara County, Dunkin and her team found a commercial-off-the-shelf product that matched food banks with people who are hungry. The solution was cost-effective, and able to directly improve the lives of residents.

That’s far from the only piece citizen-centric technology that Dunkin, who joined the county from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017, and her team have pioneered.

In prisons, the county has installed tablets and improved wireless service to help inmates work on GED diplomas. As those who are released can get caught up in a cycle of recidivism, the county has targeted helping formerly incarcerated people – again using innovative technologies as the solution. Mobile applications and tailored user profiles can remind people on probation when they have to meet with legal counsel or appear in courts, helping to avoid unnecessary reimprisonment.

Santa Clara County also allows for partial property tax payments online – through an app or a link on the county website. Partial payments, which most counties do not support, put less financial stress on lower-income members of the community.

Behind all of these citizen-based missions is a common thread: a county mindset that weaves itself between the often-disconnected ideas of public service and innovation. Dunkin’s team has sewn those two together.

Emphasizing core values of the county, such as respect, integrity and accountability, Dunkin has tried to create a culture for the people – the ones inside and outside of the office.

“We operate toward a bias of action and change,” Dunkin said.

Santa Clara County oversees its expenditures and emphases with Technology Business Management (TBM), a tracking system that shows where money goes in an organization. It also has updated job categories on its career compass and encourages employees to seek out continuous education. Dunkin said she’d rather have overqualified employees move to higher-paying jobs than retain ones who are unable to fulfill the demands of their work.

“We’ve set up the structure for innovation, but it takes more than structure to innovate. Innovation is about culture,” Dunkin said.

Being innovative requires risks, Dunkin advised, something that Dunkin acknowledged isn’t inherent in government and, in fact, has been discouraged. Dunkin wants her employees to take risks, as long as they’re calculated with regards to potential benefit. Instilling that culture is necessary for the mission of the organization to truly make an impact, she said.

“We believe that people are our most valuable asset, and everything we do – from the culture change to the projects we do to every day – is about the people,” Dunkin said.

Make sure to visit GovLoop.com for future virtual summits, which can be found here.

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