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Lean Startup methodology key to open government initiative in Palo Alto

CIO Jonathan Reichental introduced Lean Startup techniques to make better, faster decisions and provide more transparency in local government.

Jonathan Reichental had his doubts about accepting the position as CIO for the City of Palo Alto. As someone who had climbed the ranks at PricewaterhouseCoopers to become director of technology and innovation and had gone on to become the CIO at O'Reilly Media, he worried about the government's typically slow pace of change. 

It is that drive to use IT to make a difference in users' lives that made Reichental the SearchCIO 2013 Enterprise IT Leadership Award winner in the category of customer experience.

Jonathan ReichentalJonathan Reichental,
CIO, City of Palo Alto

"I was afraid that what would normally take a few months might take a few years," Reichental said. Still, this was Palo Alto calling, the heart of Silicon Valley. How could he pass up "being an IT leader for a city where IT is so important?"

Turns out, Reichental had nothing to worry about. A few months before he arrived, the city council redefined the CIO's role: Councilors approved technology as its own department and gave the CIO a seat at the department head table. Both decisions signaled to Reichental a changing role for technology in Palo Alto.

The restructuring paved the way for the new CIO to take risks, including the adoption of the Lean Startup, a new methodology for business development based on experimentation and iterative development. Pioneered by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries, the Lean Startup approach helped Reichental speed up technology decisions, build customer-facing products and embark on an expansive open government initiative to provide better transparency.

Just two years into the job, Reichental has carved out a name for himself as a "doer, dreamer and driver" in local government, and his department's successes are racking up the recognitions.

"When they hired me, I was brought in … with a mission to keep the lights running, of course, but also to push the envelope of what was possible in government technology," said Reichental, who brings more than 20 years of IT expertise to the role.

Lean, mean startup machine

One of the first tasks that demanded out-of-the-box thinking was a website redesign -- a project that had been under way for three-and-a-half years. IT wanted to perfect the site before going live, but when the city manager told Reichental that success within his first six months would be defined by whether the redesign launched, perfection was no longer an option. Reichental, who leads a team of 32 employees, decided to turn the production process on its head with the Lean Startup methodology -- at the time an approach no other city CIO was using.

This modest initiative suddenly took on a much bigger story: Can we make a better, richer democracy in Palo Alto and by doing that, create a model for other cities our size?

Jonathan Reichental,
CIO, City of Palo Alto

"My objective was to get the product out fast … [and] to make sure the product was successful," said Reichental. "I thought, 'If we apply the principles from the Lean Startup world to government, maybe we can have a positive result.'"

Lean Startup integrates early market perception into the development process; businesses build a "minimum viable product," get it out to market quickly for feedback and iterate the product based on that feedback -- even changing directions, if necessary.

The approach has its risks. Indeed, several of Reichental's staff members initially were skeptical about the Lean Startup methodology, concerned that community members -- and an active local press -- would criticize their efforts. The secret, Reichental told his staff, was to choose a Lean Startup project carefully ("you don't do Lean on large financial systems") and be as transparent with the community as possible.

"You have to tell people what you're doing," he said. "You communicate loud and clear."

Keeping the original website operational, Reichental and his team launched a beta version of the redesign and asked the community to provide feedback. With the highly engaged constituents of Palo Alto, that wasn't a problem, he said. His team was able to officially launch the newly designed site "just about two or three months after I joined," he added.

Opening up city data

Transparency could very well be the theme of Reichental's tenure as a city CIO. Recognizing that not all constituents can make it to city council meetings, he convinced the city officials to host a series of Twitter town halls where members of the community could ask questions and get answers. And in early 2012, Reichental (with the city manager's blessing) decided to figure out a way to open up city data.

"All of us recognize that by making data a bit more accessible and visual, it would increase transparency and accountability," he said. "So, this modest initiative suddenly took on a much bigger story: Can we make a better, richer democracy in Palo Alto and by doing that, create a model for other cities our size?"

The initiative would mean more than providing documents in downloadable spreadsheet form; it meant "making it really easy for the data stores to be machine consumable or visualized by a whole range of stakeholders," Reichental said.

To do that, the City of Palo Alto needed new technology; to build the initial open data platform, Reichental and his team turned to local Software-as-a-Service provider Junar. Using the Lean Startup technique, Palo Alto's IT department were able to move from vendor selection to Web product in just six weeks. The first platform specialized in general data -- from census information to basic city finances to library checkout statistics. They next launched a second platform, which focused on detailed budget information and needed a tool all its own. Today, thanks to a group of entrepreneurs at Stanford University, the Palo Alto community can slice and dice its way through five years of city budget data.

Most recently, Reichental and his team launched a third platform that utilizes Google Fusion Table and the city's rich geospatial information. Google Fusion Table can take on large data sets and "leverage other aspects of the Google ecosystem in order to create geospatial visualizations," he said.

These tools rely on partnerships with the community, are very easy to manage and -- best of all -- aren't exorbitantly expensive. The Junar platform costs about $5,000 a year, but a tool such as Google Fusion Table or Twitter costs next to nothing while helping to build better relationships between a city and its government.

"There is, unfortunately, a tension between America and its government," Reichental said. "You see it worst at the national level, but when you're at the local level, you live with these people. You are part of the community. … We want to eliminate that feeling -- that perception -- so that there is better accountability and better trust."

This was first published in July 2013

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