by Marketa Hulpachova

The CIO Activist: Using IT To Improve Lives

Nov 02, 2010

San Francisco CIO Chris Vein pushes for social change and seeks to extend broadband access to the masses.

Local governments, with their volatile budgets and bureaucracies, may seem an unlikely breeding ground for cutting-edge IT solutions. But Chris Vein, CIO of the City of San Francisco, approaches being a municipal CIO from the standpoint of a social activist.

By focusing on grassroots-level communication and “always trying new things,” Vein transformed San Francisco into a purveyor of IT for the masses, and, in effect, earned the city a global reputation as a groundbreaker in e-government and democracy. “Although CIOs now have greater purview, most of them are not out there solving social problems,” Vein says. “Technology helps us address the age-old question of how to govern better and more effectively.”

Vein came to San Francisco in 2001, an era when municipal governments were considered technological dinosaurs. The city’s roughly 53 decentralized departments were in disparate stages of IT readiness: some had state-of-the-art technology, others had none. To overcome the internal barriers, Vein capitalized on apparent negatives like the shrinking city budget. “Oftentimes, a crisis is helpful to get what you want,” he says. “It creates a sense of urgency, making it easier to work with people.”

The secret to achieving any internal change, he says, is to make it part of the program. “Beg, borrow, and steal” any technology and committed people you can find, says Vein. Incorporate them into sturdy, cross-departmental trust networks and seize opportunities to promote your cause. “Find a window and build momentum, test things and keep evolving. Once your project is part of the program, it becomes very difficult to stop or slow down.”

Taking this community-building approach has helped him tackle the digital divide, something he views as one of the most pressing social issues of our time. By 2009, Vein and his IT team extended the city’s high-speed broadband network to many disadvantaged communities. Along the way, they established lasting community contacts and fulfilled the city’s mission of bringing the government closer to the people.

Other municipal governments have since followed suit. Like Vein, they think broadband could give the community an economic boost, and are willing to use their own resources to build robust networks that in some cases outperform those of private carriers.

“At a time when the federal perspective to broadband was [that it was] a hands-off, private-sector matter, local governments have been adopting activist approaches, serving and educating the community on how to use broadband in their lives,” says Joanne Hovis, President-Elect of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.

Advocating this at the federal level is another part of Vein’s mission. Even in Washington, his community experience is a valuable addition to the abstract, inside-the-Beltway talks that pervade policy discourse. As the broadband stimulus debate gains momentum, Vein’s work is seen as a catalyst for next-generation broadband projects nationwide, says Hovis.

A mix of civic-mindedness, entrepreneurship and grassroots involvement make Vein an intriguing prototype for a public-sector CIO. “Little in my career have I met someone who is as given to ideas that come from different places, and not afraid to try them even if they fail,” says Hovis. “In America, we associate fearless entrepreneurship with the private sector, but I would argue that the results have been in the public sector, and they have been particularly important at the community level.”

Marketa Hulpachova is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.