Eight years ago, sitting in a windowless office while the other, more high-profile members of the transition team presented their ideas, a smaller, less glamorous group toiled away trying to answer a direct question from the soon-to-be Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “Why the hell can’t I track a pothole like I track a FedEx package?” Today, Chicagoans can do just that—and more—and three guys in that room ended up serving as the City of Chicago’s first “digital trio” on the Fifth Floor.
I was one leg of that stool, charged to create the city’s first coordinated approach to digital-first communications and make sure innovation made sense for real Chicagoans. As a new mayor prepares to take the keys (and logins), I couldn’t help but reflect on what the next digital communications team can take away from the the first one.
Make the city work for the people.
No one wants to call four departments and troll the city’s Twitter feeds, only to learn their “pothole” is actually a “sink hole” and they’ve barked up the wrong tree. When Mayor Emanuel took office, we saw parents struggling to figure out where to get a flu shot or how to find an early childhood education program. So, with the help of volunteer civic hackers, we created new tools to help Chicagoans easily find answers. We recognized not everyone can schlepp across the city for forums, so we brought the town hall to Facebook live-streaming and turned social media into a feedback forum. I’m optimistic to see how the new Lightfoot team looks past the next flashy trend to take a hard look at how technology can create human-to-human connections, taking City Hall directly into communities.
Is the city working? Prove it.
City staffers must listen and engage, and that dialogue is even more productive we’re all informed by the same facts. During a blizzard, the view from your kitchen window isn’t the same as the view from Snow Command (yes, that’s a thing). Yet it’s all these perspectives that together can shape our conclusion if a city is working. We made the GPS location of all the city snow plows public and, sure, it was fun watching the Plower Tracker eat up snow like Pac Man, but, more importantly, residents knew its city government was hard at work. This fueled a more informed conversation around how we can make the city work even smarter for its residents.
Closing the “conversation” loop by starting at the top.
If you’re going to solicit ideas, make sure people are heard and celebrate when those ideas hit the streets. That has to start at the top. Commissioners need to pick up the phone when the social media director calls. The “digital customer feedback box” cannot go unanswered. Whether it’s sliding into a DM chat, @tagging in the right department or even having the Mayor pick up the phone herself.
Don’t ask what the Nerd Herd can do for you, but what can you do with the Nerd Herd.
Chicago’s civic hacking community is an invaluable and undervalued asset to the city. It exists to create solutions in service to the people, regardless of the politics. City officials need to be a staple in this community: an active participant, with sleeves rolled up and ready to work. Finding the best brains requires venturing out of the 5th floor. Some of our best collaborations happened when non-tech folks from the health department or education leaders voiced their challenges and stuck around to co-create solutions.
“Brand” isn’t a bad word. Shape it, but don’t expect to control it.
The Lightfoot brand is created not by what she says, but what she does and how it is received and interpreted by millions of Chicagoans. It’s that wonderful collection of opinions, perceptions and trust that’s shaped by how her administration lives up to our shared values. Don’t be afraid of that personality that drew so many voters in, embrace it. Policy needs a little personality. Sometimes a zombie apocalypse, LGBTQ Valentine, or an impromptu moment on the CTA is the smile that we could all use more of.
“It’s okay to fail, just never the same way twice.”
Those are some family-friendly words of wisdom from Emanuel himself.
Kevin Hauswirth served as Chicago’s first head of digital communications and as an assistant press secretary for innovation. He now runs Hauswirth/Co a strategic communications firm for brands and advocacy clients.