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“Embracing Digital Technology Just For The Sake Of It Is A Terrible Idea”: Rachel Haot

How the digital head of the state of New York keeps start-up culture alive within government.

“Embracing Digital Technology Just For The Sake Of It Is A Terrible Idea”: Rachel Haot
[Photo: Flickr user Craig Cloutier]

Rachel Haot could have done anything.

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After founding an early crowd-sourced news outlet fresh out of NYU, she was tapped at just 26 years old by then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg to become the first Chief Digital Officer for New York City. She overhauled the city’s website, expanded public Wi-Fi, opened city data to developers and helped launch initiatives to help local tech companies. When Bloomberg left office, she had a multitude of private sector opportunities.

Rachel HaotPhoto: Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images for Glamour

Instead, Haot chose to re-up, on an even bigger stage, taking on the chief digital officer title for the state of New York, under governor Andrew Cuomo. “My passion is the intersection of technology and public service,” she says. “When I was in school, roles like this didn’t exist. I’ve always been attracted to the entrepreneurial community and digital media. There’s so much we can do.”

Haot’s consistent focus is uncommon for many digerati. “I don’t see myself as being in enormous flux. It is organizations that are in flux, and that’s where the interesting growth and progress is. By the end of the Bloomberg administration, we’ve achieved some goals, but at the state level there are a whole series of other challenges. Cities seem like that’s where the action is, but the state is in some ways a collection of cities, and to help modernize all of that is an amazing opportunity. “

The starting point for Hoat’s efforts, at the city level and now for the state, starts with a vision of what is possible. “We’re in the process of refining the state’s innovation and digital roadmap. The goal is to identify where we’ll get ROI and impact.”

“I’ve never really articulated a personal mission,” she says of herself. “I believe that technology can impact society in a way that helps and empowers individuals.”

So how do you build a roadmap for a mission that broad? “Data is one of the amazing tools,” Haot says. “It is enormously helpful. In deciding on priorities, you can get caught up in emotional issues or religious debate, or politics, especially when you’re using public money. The guidelines we’ve used, in the city and now at state: What do people want and need from us? What activities are we engaged in that touch people the most, and how can we improve on that? The user is primary.

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“If you look at the websites of many organizations, it’s so clear that they are defined by internal dynamics, not by the user. We ask, what do we know about our users? Everything follows that. Embracing digital technology just for the sake of it is a terrible idea.”

Haot is still in close contact with the tech community in the private sector, but she doesn’t evidence any hint of regret. “When I looked at different career choices, its hard to match the positive impact I could have on people’s lives, especially if I want to serve people with lower incomes and social challenges. It’s hard to build a business that addresses this group, because it’s not the most robust financial market.”

She also clearly likes the never-been-done-before aspect of her position. “There are lots of rules in government geared to minimizing risk, and that forces us to be more scrappy in getting things done. You end up becoming really good friends with lawyers, asking, can we do this another way? It’s uncharted territory. People say, We’ve always done it that way, this is the rule, this is the law. If you press, you can usually find another way, another precedent. For anyone in tech or government, your job is not to show “why we can’t do it,” it’s to find ways to make it work.

“You see these issues at any large organization. We don’t want to mess up something that’s working. How do you keep a startup mentality? You keep pushing.”

It’s important to have a roadmap, Haot says, “because so much is going on. More than a roadmap, you need an approach, a methodology. When someone comes in suggesting a new public-private partnership, we can say, does it fit into any of our initiatives? Or is it a solution in search of a problem? We need to determine as quickly as possible how aligned an idea is with your plan. “

“I would love to get people more excited about tech and government. I’m the lucky one, being able to work to make a difference, it’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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