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Pay Attention to the Leaders Behind the Data

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The branch of municipal government that oversees technology and shares information with the public plays a vital role in keeping citizens connected, informed, and empowered. It goes by many names -- Information Technology Department, Office of Innovation and Technology, Communications and Information Office -- but whatever you call it, understanding its authority and functions is key to understanding how a government perceives the role of technology in its own operations and has implications for how a locality structures and enforces its open data policies.

Gail-Roper-Raleigh-CIO
Gail Roper, Raleigh CIO

The leaders of these departments are often tasked with helping municipalities craft a vision and goals for sharing information with the public. How cities structure their IT departments (whatever name those departments may go by) and what roles the leaders of those departments play gives us a better understanding of how local governments might approach sharing data.

Some cities are clearer than others about how much agency is vested in the IT leader.

In Chicago, data is made available through an extensive portal and the Department of Innovation and Technology works to connect the public to government information by coordinating data disclosure with other departments, as mandated through the city’s 2012 Open Data Executive Order. This Order also tasks a Chief Data Officer and Chief Information Officer with working together on releasing data to the public. The creation of these positions was accompanied by the release of 21 more city datasets with the promise of more to come.

In New York City, another municipal government that makes large amounts of data available through a central portal, a Chief Digital Officer and Chief Information and Innovation Officer are both tasked with duties relevant to how information is shared with the public. They have already started working together on gathering ideas for reinventing the city's aging payphones to act more like public information portals, as just one example of their collaboration.

John-Tolva-Chicago-CTO
John Tolva, Chicago CTO

Titles chosen for IT leaders, like the titles for the IT departments, are what cities make them to be. Though the names and specifics of the roles vary, the potential influence is the same: These roles are increasingly vested with opportunities to shape open data initiatives that can better inform the public. How that power is managed -- and whether the people at the reins are supplied with the authority and resources to make meaningful change -- play a deciding role in the depth, creativity, and breadth of a city’s open data disclosure in ways that we have yet to see fully play out.

Though an increasing number of municipal governments have chosen to create a CIO or CTO-like position to steer their IT policies, others have chosen a commission or board structure to hold the same authority. For example, Ann Arbor, Michigan, has a Technology Leadership Board that helps "advise and assist the Director of IT in guiding IT investments and management." By contrast, many smaller municipalities manage their IT needs with the limited resources at hand, relying entirely on one-person IT departments or enlisting a clerk, secretary, or other record keeper to take on this responsibility. Still others choose to work with other cities or with their county for IT services, sharing a singular set department across a few government bodies. This is especially true in consolidated city-county governments.

How any IT leadership role plays out -- whether it's filled by a CIO, an IT Director, a commission or a clerk -- depends in part on the input, support, and guidance that that position receives from other knowledgeable sources inside and outside of government. No matter who leads a local government's technology policy, acknowledging their ability to steer open data policies that act in the public's best interest is an important step toward starting a dialogue about what those policies might look like.