On Being CDO of San Francisco
Reflections on 4.5 years serving as CDO of San Francisco & leading datasf.org
The word transition has been central to my world since December 12, 2017. On that day, I woke up to the death of my former boss, Mayor Edwin M. Lee.
In the next 6 months, I experienced 3 mayoral transitions, 2 staff transitions, and one organizational transition. And now for my latest transition, leaving my role as the first Chief Data Officer of San Francisco.
It’s not possible to summarize my time at the City but I’ve been reflecting on a few things as I move through this next transition.
Think Cincinnatus NOT Caesar and Brutus
Cincinnatus was a Roman Senator who, according to legend, was called upon to serve Rome in a time of stress and was given total power to do so. After serving, he left the capital and relinquished his power. In contrast, the story of Caesar and Brutus was a brutal and deadly battle for power.
If you take on a service role, serve well with low ego and leave when it makes sense. DON’T make it about: Your Power, Your Title, Your Legacy, or Your Next Step. Focus on service and good things will flow.
When I started this role, my husband bought me a little picture of Cincinnatus that sat in my workspace during my entire tenure at the city. On the back of it I wrote down why I took the job. Whenever I faced a choice about how to handle something, I pulled out that picture and reminded myself why I was there.
Be realistic about how long real change takes
The Civic Tech movement has fostered incredible interest in public service. This is wonderful and we have many groups to thank for this, including Code for America, 18F, US Digital Services, UK’s GDS and many city and state level innovators.
Sometimes this enthusiasm is tempered (and occasionally crushed) by how hard it can be to work in government. The systems of government are engineered to move slowly, risk is abhorrent and innovation is often viewed as a cheap political word.
As a result, you must approach your service with patience and the expectation that the time you invest and the results you want are directly correlated. The concept of a tour of service makes perfect sense. But anything less than 3 years is insufficient unless your tour of duty is part of some group or strategy operating under a longer timeline.
Build lasting change through institutions not individuals
A key part of DataSF’s approach was to work with institutional partners. We never harbored the delusion that our small team could (or should) save the day. Instead, we deliberately cultivated or created institutional partners, groups and networks throughout the city. Sometimes we did focus on individual roles because that’s all there was. That can be ok, because government roles usually persist even if the particular individual changes.
The necessary corollary of this is that you need to co-build, co-own and co-celebrate your change work with your partners. And sometimes that also means you disappear into the background.
Never forget, this is about people and change, not data and technology
If you find yourself in a data or technology role in government — remember, all that data and technology is irrelevant if the tools and approaches aren’t broadly adopted. Fundamentally, your work is change management, which means you need to cultivate a pure and continuous sense of curiosity and humility on why change hasn’t happened. This is a polite way of saying — don’t be a jerk.
This experience has snuck into every fiber of my being. I suspect I’ll be learning from it the rest of my life. In the meantime, I hope these bits are helpful for others embarking on their own government journey.
Also, if you aren’t already, follow the DataSF team going forward. I know they’ll do amazing things, because, well, they are amazing and I’ll miss them most of all.
Warmest and best to everyone! And more on what’s next soon…