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How smarter technology can humanize city government

Sree Sreenivasan, New York’s new Chief Digital Officer, believes better digital storytelling can spur civic engagement

City communications illustration Shutterstock

In a year that’s been filled with some unpredicted lessons on social media and civil engagement, the idea that we can humanize government and improve citizen involvement through digital communication may seem utopian. Sree Sreenivasan, a pioneering digital strategist who was recently named New York City’s Chief Digital Officer, thinks it’s actually the perfect way to connect millions of New Yorkers with their government.

“I think the future of all business is storytelling, and everyone needs to be doing more of that,” he says. “We all have to be better at listening instead of broadcasting.”

Sreenivasan, who held similar roles at Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, joins a growing city technology staff that includes a chief technology officer, analytics officer, and chief information officer. He has been tasked with creating digital strategy and tech-related job growth for a city government with over 300,000 employees that serves 8.4 million residents.

“We want startups to be born here, built here, and thrive here,” he says. “Part of my job is to be a front door for the entrepreneurial community. Come and work with us, we want to work with you.”

Sree Sreenivasan
Sree Sreenivasan
Tanya Mallot

Despite the huge audiences he must reach in his new role, Sreenivasan thinks about things on a very personal level, hoping to meet and speak with as many of his colleagues as possible—even broadcasting parts of some discussions on Facebook Live to help spotlight the people behind city government. “A few down, 300,000 more to go,” he says.

Curbed spoke with Sreenivasan about his role, the challenge of improving digital literacy, and turning trash collectors into social media rock stars.

Do you have any sense of how many social accounts the city or city employees are running?

“The city has something like 80-plus accounts between agencies and other organizations doing social, and we work with all of them. We’re really excited about helping with consistent, clear, personalized, tailored messaging across all these different agencies. Some are very big and popular accounts touch the lives of millions of people every day, and some are smaller and have different needs than those better-known agencies.”

What’s happening with city social media that residents might be surprised about?

“Just the fact that there are 80 different kinds of social media, that surprises folks. The Mayor’s photo office has its own dedicated Twitter account, theres #GreeNYC, which talks about green issues. There’s so many different accounts talking on behalf of the city. It’s really interesting to get to know them and do something new or interesting. There’s NYC Immigrant Affairs (@NYCimmigrants), Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities (@NYCDisabilities)—almost any topic you can think of has a team or social media person. The direction we’re going is thinking more strategically, and getting more resources so people can not only broadcast but listen on social.”

When you worked at Columbia, you said one of your jobs was to turn professors into social media rock stars. How do you do that with some of the more obscure city agencies and government officials?

“If you walk into city hall today, there’s a photo display about civic pride and the workers of New York. It’s a really beautiful display. It’s like the treatment a celebrity might get: big large-format photographs, beautifully done, but of someone behind the scenes. What strikes you is the city isn’t just an entity, it’s about people. The main thing we need to do is humanize city government. We have rockstars in our Mayor and First Lady, but how do we get attention to all the people doing interesting things because, as you know, it’s increasingly about stories. The city is about stories, and we have a very active communications team telling stories. It’s about more photos, more video, more people’s lives, more Periscopes. People are so unclear about what city government does. I was, and to a certain degree still am, one of those people. Social brings that alive in a way no amount of speeches can.”

Humans of New York City government, so to speak.

“I think the future of all business is storytelling and everyone needs to be doing more of that.”

How does a better digital strategy get more people aware and involved in city government?

“It would be fair to say that many parts of the city may not be as clear to people. But at the same time, the Mayor has a very big pulpit to speak out, and does it on multiple platforms in multiple ways every day. How are we going to augment his voice and his reach with other people? Because increasingly, consumers, citizens and residents want to hear from multiple people. We want to humanize government.”

Your work can help increase government transparency, but there’s also a way to get people to participate more. How do you make government more transparent while getting people more involved?

“I think the answer is in the question. The more people understand how this impacts and affects their lives, the more they can get involved. We have a big project we’re proud of, the Tech Talent Pipeline, which is trying to create more tech jobs for New Yorkers in New York. Often, when you see buildings being built, or hear that Google is moving in, or Etsy has a new headquarters, New Yorkers think, ‘This isn’t for me.’ Actually, we want you to see these as places for you. We’re working with the top companies in New York to create new high-paying jobs for technology. It starts in kindergarten and goes all the way to universities, and saying to professors, ‘These are the skills people are asking for, are they the ones you’re teaching?’”

What does the tech industry need to learn about government?

“We love working with tech companies. What they don’t always understand is that the emphasis on disruption means you’re not just disrupting industries, but you’re disrupting lives and people. There’s a great op-ed by Om Malik in the New Yorker about the lack of empathy in Silicon Valley, and I think that’s an important thing for them to be thinking about when they’re creating the next great thing. Another thing is that city government wants to make sure they’re paying employees fairly, that they’re safe using new products, that these companies are sustainable. Some of our rules and regulations are decades old, and aren’t easy to change, but even if we wanted to, we want to change them for companies that are sustainable. The city is going to be here for a long time, we’re not going to change every time somebody wants us to. The more cities get to know tech companies, the better it is for us, and vice-versa.”

How do you increase digital literacy and access in the city?

“The number one thing is to make sure people have access to broadband, and the Mayor has a whole project, NYC Connected, to make sure there are no digital deserts in the city. If that was a map of a utility that didn’t exist, people would be angry, but because it’s broadband, people don’t always know they should be mad about it and fighting to get access. The Mayor has made that a priority in housing projects and other places and has a senior advisor just focused on broadband. It’s very important.”

LinkNYC Kiosk

What should the city have learned from the LinkNYC situation (a series of new digital kiosks were installed in New York, but free internet browsing had to be shut off due to abuse) and what’s next with the program?

“I’ve gotten credit and blame for that situation, which actually happened before me. It’s like a phantom limb—people tell us, ‘I saw people watching videos,’ even after they’ve been shut down, and have false memories of people using it.”

“I think it’s a wonderful program. It’s a great example of a public-private partnership, a way to use technology in new ways, and I think people building off that is going to be very exciting. Right now it has 450 points, and we’re going to go up to 10,000 kiosks in the next couple of years. I think it’s important. If you want to see people who are grateful, ask foreign tourists who can now connect without using their data plans.”

How do you take the digital pulse of the city?

“We all have to be better at listening instead of broadcasting. We’re looking to expand the 311 system so it’s not just about complaints. Me personally, I try to read as much as I can throughout the day, what people are posting. It’s not easy, as you know. Being of a journalistic background, I read a lot of blogs and news outlets.”

What’s on your smart city wish list? What technology or addition would you want to add to improve New York City?

“The main thing is this broadband issue. I’m always happy to get questions about subway technology, though it’s something I have no control over it. I’m glad to hear Wi-Fi will be on all the platforms by the end of the year. Part of me also worries when everyone is on the phone down there and it’s very crowded. It’s all a work in progress, as all great cities are.”