Rachel Sterne Vs. New York’s Digital Bureaucracy

NYC’s chief digital officer Rachel Sterne is trying to make the Big Apple run more like Apple. And she’s adding metrics-based solutions to hold her digital initiatives accountable.

Rachel Sterne Vs. New York’s Digital Bureaucracy


In January, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped Rachel Sterne to be the city’s first chief digital officer–and ever since then, the 27-year-old (28 on Monday) has been on a tear, dragging New York into the 21st century. She’s overhauled much of the city’s communication with social media; launched NYC’s Digital Road Map, a plan to transform New York into a high-tech metropolis; introduced smart and simple city solutions like adding QR codes to building permits; and held the city’s first ever hackathon. Her goal is to make government more effective and transparent through technology, to make the Big Apple run more like Apple.

But the one element lacking in most of the buzz about her meteoric rise and even bigger ambitions is a way to prove it’s all working. Until now.

As with all public sector initiatives, the onus is on her to prove she’s not just wasting tax dollars building a new digital bureaucracy. While New York has increased its digital reach by more than 100,000 people since launching the Digital Road Map in May, the number of social media channels the city oversees has also ballooned to more than 200 feeds, with more than 100 individuals running them, a figure which can rise as high as 200 if you count interns. Sterne is weary of overreaching, though, and she’s implementing metric- and results-based solutions to hold her digital initiatives accountable.

“The No. 1 thing we tell our agencies is: If you’re starting a Facebook page for the sake of starting a Facebook page, you’re going to fail,” Sterne tells Fast Company. “Because that’s not what this is about.”

In the case of social media, Sterne says it’s all about “speaking the language of our constituents.” The city understands that residents are less likely to read a press release than a Twitter feed, or a government website than a Facebook page. That’s why in addition to those platforms, New York has pushed agencies to start uploading videos on YouTube, adding photos to Flickr, and connecting with citizens on WordPress or Tumblr.

Many of these channels are showing signs of success, especially when delivering “seasonal or timely announcements quickly and effectively,” as Sterne says. The city’s feeds for snow updates and transportation news, for example, are convenient tools for New Yorkers; the city’s 311 Twitter account boasts more than 18,000 followers. “With social media, you’re engaging in these one-to-one interactions in public, and it starts to create a public record of what’s happening,” Sterne says. “Especially when compared to traditional modes of communication, there’s an enormous amount of cost savings and return on investment for the amount of time put in.”


Still, it’s unclear whether that’s the case for all the city’s social media channels. Many departments and agencies run nearly a half-dozen feeds. Does the NYC department of human resources administration need a Facebook page, a Flickr page, a YouTube profile, and a Twitter account? Some agencies have several Facebook pages; some have several Twitter feeds. And at this point, it’s not certain how effective these channels of communication are. New York’s department for the aging, for example, has sent out more than 1,200 tweets, often posting multiple times a day, yet it has just 580 followers in a city of 8 million. Scouring the city’s myriad YouTube pages, you’ll be hard-pressed to find videos with more than a couple hundred views; many video view-counts number in the double- or even single-digits.

To create and maintain the city’s social media channels takes time and resources, and it’s not easy to track how much time and resources the city is investing in social media. “It would be really difficult to say that X number of man-hours are allocated to [social media] per week,” Sterne says. “By and large, people are taking this on on top of their core responsibilities. People inside the city are often wearing multiple hats at once.”

But Sterne acknowledges the agencies need to be held accountable. “Of course it would be insane for us to use all these platforms if they’re not necessary–it would be ridiculous to use all these feeds just to use them,” she says. “Part of our job is to look at them and ask, ‘Where is this an effective use of our resources? Where is it not?'”

To deal with this issue, New York has launched SMART, the Social Media Advisory and Research Taskforce. The committee will act as a consulting body for agencies making the digital transition, providing feedback and streamlining social media strategy and policy. They’re also highlighting best practices, and planning to hold crash courses and workshops for communication managers. “One of the first steps we’re implementing is we’re going to standardize the use of a centralized social media management platform like HootSuite,” Sterne says. “Also tied to that is a centralized process for reporting–across the city, we will be able to compare, agency by agency, who is performing, and who is not–who is responding to requests, and who is not.”


She is especially excited about using customer-relationship management tools to track the success of social media engagement. “You could call it constituent-relationship management,” she says. “It’s absolutely key to have this metric-based approach. Until you have that approach, it’s all very subjective, and it’s basically an emotional conversation. We want to take all of the subjectivity out of the process, and focus entirely on the metrics and numbers: Is it an effective use of the platform?”

She cites New York’s department of health and mental hygiene as one of the city’s most effective users of social media. By the numbers, she says, they boast some of the city’s most popular pages–the NYC Condom Facebook page, for example, has more than 17,000 “Likes.”

The success of other agencies on social media will undergo evaluation. If they’re not performing, Sterne wants to know. “When we meet with agencies, the first thing we say is, ‘What’s the goal of your agency?’ And then we work backwards from there,” she says. “In some cases we might say that it’s not the best idea for you to launch a Facebook page or Twitter feed right now. At a certain point, it might not make sense.”

“You have to take this metric- and results-based approach because it’s the only way we’ll be successful,” Sterne says. “It’s important to look at social media just as you would any other channel: It needs to be done correctly and strategically. The truth is you have to look at it like any other investment.”

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.