Everyone stopped talking.
Rachel Haot, current deputy secretary of technology for the State of New York, was an intern with the US Department’s mission to the UN, and then secretary general Kofi Annan had walked into the room.
It was a briefing with the Security Council, and the pressing topic of the day was a call to action to do something about the crisis in Darfur. While the norm was for people to continue talking and conferring with each other, when Annan was talking, all was silent.
As an intern, it was a powerful moment. Just a few years shy of the age of Twitter and Facebook, Haot thought about how technology could disperse Annan’s message to beyond the doors of the Security Council meeting. She said that moment propelled her toward the intersection of technology and the public sector.
Since then, Haot has stuck to that concept. In 2006, she founded Groundreport, a citizen journalism platform. Stories on the homepage were collectively voted on and have included reports from the earthquake in Haiti, all the way up to the current situation in Iraq with jihadist group ISIS.
“It served as this opportunity for many more voices to be heard, especially at the global level and the ideal is that through greater transparency, you would be hearing first hand from someone experiencing one of these conflicts and it would be more emotionally engaging,” she said, and thereby, encourage engagement from the public.
After four years, Haot left. She was running a consulting firm when she got the chance to join then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration as the first chief digital officer (CDO). One of her primary projects was creating a digital roadmap for the city that included a range of initiatives from infrastructure and education, to engagement to technology industry support.
As the Bloomberg administration wound down, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration got in touch with her about joining as deputy secretary of technology (and CDO). It was a role both new and familiar in the sense that she would be once again tackling a digital roadmap, but again, without precedence- and for an entire state.
The idea of a roadmap involves managing and improving the relationship between constituents and the many “digital touchpoints” of the government.
“When you are looking at something like technology where there’s constant change, constant momentum and an enormous amount of interest both internally and externally, one of the most important things to do is remain focused and maintain your priorities and that can allow you to really deliver,” she said.
She breaks it down into three basic steps. First, they gathered input and info from every stakeholder- constituents, government agencies, technologists. They find out goals and what was already working.
“I think it’s really critical because that helps to align our operations and our recommendations with what makes the most sense for agencies across the state because we want to make sure that the plan is consistent with their own agency goals,” she said.
Second, they looked at their data, including traffic analytics to their websites and how people were using those sites, and which services are of the most interest.
Third, with all the information gathered, they charted out the best and most effective way to allocate time and resources for the biggest impact.
“That’s really the key to our approach, and then on an ongoing basis, it’s important to constantly evaluate incoming opportunities to make sure it’s always in line with agency goals or state goals, and that it’s not creating a burden,” she said.
With so much input from so many places, Haot said one of the big challenges is setting priorities and staying focused. For perspective, the State of New York handles roughly 250 social media accounts alone. This is where Haot says she’s fortunate to work with a strong team because there’s a lot to do.
“If you look at a state like New York State, the sky is truly the limit. There is unlimited potential in terms of the projects and initiatives we can launch, and the ability for technology to improve our operations,” she said, “But at the end of the day, there are only so many hours in the day and we need to make decisions and set priorities about where we’re going to invest our energies.”
Haot finds it most helpful to learn the interests and motivations of her colleagues and peers with the idea of figuring out goals and chances for collaboration.
“If it’s carrot versus stick, I’m much more on the carrot side of the equation,” she said.
In her own words…
How do you unplug?
“Previously… yoga [was] very helpful for me and I find it’s a great way to stay centered a focused. But I would add, especially more recently, I had a son. Playing with my son definitely puts me in a different frame of mind. When I’m spending time with him I really try to be present.”
If you could try a different profession, what would it be?
“If I was going to do something totally out of left field, maybe I would be a photographer. I really love Instagram. If you look at my Instagram feed, you’ll see that I do love to take pictures, but I am obviously not a professional photographer. Right now it’s limited to my iPhone.”
Is there a social media account or website that you follow or read for fun?
“There’s a lot. The three that come to mind- one is I Love New York. They have a great Twitter and Instagram feed that’s all about fantastic things that you can do across the state of New York and I think it’s just a great way to stay involved. Another on is the US Department of the Interior has an Instagram account. It has some of the most stunning photography of the National Parks. Independent of government, Humans of New York. I’ve always been a fan of that. I was able to meet Brandon, the founder, and I think his work is fantastic and love the way it reveals all of these everyday heroes.”