Troubleshooting Civic Challenges through Direct Involvement
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Troubleshooting Civic Challenges through Direct Involvement

By Craig Hopkins, CIO, City of San Antonio

Craig Hopkins, CIO, City of San Antonio

A surface-level understanding of the challenges faced by the public has barely helped because the root cause behind every problem remains unidentified. In the city of San Antonio, the government, however, is focusing on reaching out to the public to comprehend their grievances. This kind of broad approach has helped the city offer relevant solutions to the existing problems.

New Trends Impacting the Governance

The government decision-makers of the City of San Antonio focus on applying data and technologies to tackle civic problems faced by the residents. Rather than blindly chasing new technologies and solutions, we focus on problem-solving. In the bygone days, we used a traditional technology-first approach to solve specific siloed problems, but today, we have taken a few steps ahead. Now, we use a wider approach and design thinking to comprehend the pain points of both residents and employees working for different organizations in the city and then find out relevant and innovative ways to solve their problems. We gather feedback from them and encourage their active participation. Through our smart city program, Smart Essay, we collaborate with residents, students, employees and entrepreneurs in our local community to search for solutions to their problems. Subsequently, we apply our technology expertise to use what we have in our inventory before exploring new technologies.

"Rather than chasing after new technologies and solutions, it is the problem-solving approach that drives our actions"

Innovative Ways to Tackle Civic Problems

Putting customers first, empathizing for their situation, and understanding their concerns are the core lessons that my experience has taught me in all these years. Making decisions on behalf of 1.5 million residents can be overwhelming. But in reality, we co-create with the people, design the hypothesis on problem statements, and reach out to the people to validate the hypothesis.

San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the U.S. both by population and size. To tackle challenges faced by the residents, we emphasized three areas in the city: the healthcare facility, the downtown, and the Brook City-Base, rather than attempting to solve problems across the city. We focused on those selected zones and talked to the residents about their specific challenges. With the insights gathered from them, we created a hypothesis. Through the technology—Tele-Town Hall, we were able to connect with the residents through phone calls. We could reach out to 25,000 residents in that area, and 2,000 of them talked to us for an hour and acquainted us with the serious issues in their areas. This undertaking has helped us understand the challenges around parking, flooding, and issues related to the digital divide. Since residents are taking an active part in our project, they provide us with live feedback as we execute our work on the field.

We prototype with either the existing technologies or through a series of request for proposal (RFPs) to eliminate the challenges, for our ‘mantra’ is to prototype, learn, and pivot. Rather than striving to provide large scale solutions, we use what is already available. With our data collection and metrics management, we pivot to the appropriate solution.

Why Our Approach Stands Out in the Crowd

We strive to build trust and enhance public involvement. Being out in the field with the residents differentiates us. In the past, the government and vendors only implemented the solutions to eliminate the challenges faced by the residents and our employees, hoping they would use them. In our approach, residents are a part of the co-creation process.

We are following the same approach with our employees in San Antonio. The city has approximately 13,000 employees in 500 locations. It is quite an extended group, and we implement the same approach to transform the working habits for better, whether it is through the digital transformation or by making changes in the workspace.

Why “Outcome” Matters?

My simplest definition of an outcome is—change in the behavior that creates value for the business. Therefore, our focus is on the outcome rather than the output, features, and functionalities. Although projects need to focus on output, vision and strategies driving those projects should be attentive to the outcomes. When it comes to addressing employee problems, we strive to create an innovative culture where they are involved in improvement. Through a digital transformation and innovative work, we are trying to achieve that change in behavior. For residents, the change in behavior is to participate in their local government actively, to express their concerns, to involve in the process of changing policy or updating a focus. What is benefitting us today is that people are willing to interact with us through the appropriate solution as opposed to us merely providing something with a hope that they would use it.

Advice for Fellow CIOs

‘CIO’ offers the opportunity to think horizontally. Therefore, an executive involved in the technology decision-making should function both as a chief operating officer and chief innovation officer rather than being merely a technologist. We work as a chief experience officer for both employees and residents, give voice to the enterprises, and focus on designing future experiences from their perspectives.

In my opinion, a CIO’s job is to be the leader for the organization and to use information, data, and technology to solve problems. In line with these ideas, we have created a conducive environment where ideas and feedback from every employee are encouraged. We take those opinions out to the residents and employees and affirm the hypothesis. This has given us the impetus to create an extremely innovative environment.

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