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Industry Insider One-on-One: Digital Adviser on Working Toward Modern Service Delivery

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This story is limited to Industry Insider — California members.
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As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Chaeny Emanavin is senior adviser for the Digital Program in The Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at The Johns Hopkins University, where his focus includes one key California city. It’s a role he has had since the beginning of June. He was previously director of the Office of Innovation at the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS), a role he had for more than four years. Before that, he was director of product at the California Department of Technology from May 2017-January 2018; and director of product at the U.S. Digital Service from March 2016-April 2017.

A One-on-One subject in his previous role, Emanavin has a Bachelor of Science in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University; a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University; and a CIO Certificate in Information Technology Management and Leadership from the National Defense University.

Industry Insider — California: Tell me a bit about your new role and how that intersects with the public sector?

Emanavin: In broad strokes, Bloomberg Philanthropy has been sponsoring good innovative work in cities for a long time. Since Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, he had the power of some of these approaches firsthand – 311 and all those other great amazing things. And also, the power in using the data honestly to report how things are going and where improvements can be made. ... Bloomberg Philanthropies had an arm that afterward started looking at giving grants to cities to take on a big challenge. I think part of that was also a mayor’s challenge and there’s also training that is done in partnership with Harvard University, where mayors can go and their staffs can be trained in how to do some of this great civic work. As that idea grew, it’s become a partnership where this is now – Johns Hopkins University has this center. And those are some of the resources that used to be at Bloomberg are now moved over into this center. And the center’s focus is on a few different things. They’re continuing what I think used to be called Cities of Service, which was doing this work and helping the cities do very person-centered work. And now with the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation, there’s an innovation program which is kind of a sister program to the one that I’m in and – one way to put it is they’re looking at the legacy cities, the cities that have already received a grant and it may have been a few years in the past but they’re still using the techniques to do great work. And the program that I’m in is the digital one where, specifically, we’re looking at how can digital tools be used to help better deliver critical needs or better insight or better interaction between the municipality and the people who live there? I’m technically a Hopkins employee.

Industry Insider — California: Will you be working with cities nationwide?

Emanavin: What attracted me to this was, there is actually an international flavor to this. My program is specifically looking at six cities. There’s dozens and dozens of cities in the entire portfolio but the digital program is specifically looking at and working with six cities for the next three years. Most of the grants are about three years long. And the cities that we’re working with are two domestic and four international. We have San Francisco; we have Washington, D.C.; those are our two domestic cities. And then internationally, we’re working with Mexico City; we’re working with Bogota, Colombia; we’re working with Reykjavik, Iceland; and we’re working with Amsterdam. The idea of being able to see how these human-centered design techniques – I know they work really well and I’ve seen them work really well in the federal space and the state space. Being able to see how they work at the city level – that’s, a lot of times, where you’re able to see direct results of the work that’s hyperlocalized. Being able to not only work at city level but then also to see, how well do these techniques work in a different culture, in a different linguistic setting? The idea of being able to try that was just hard to pass up.

Industry Insider — California: What’s an example of a challenge?

Emanavin: Each of the cities picked two different challenges. Right now, the challenge San Francisco is focusing on ... they’re looking specifically at affordable housing and they’re looking at one of the programs around ... where the housing is available on demand, it’s sort of like Airbnb for people that are in transitional housing. We’re still figuring out what exactly that looks like because San Francisco’s an interesting challenge, because they have a digital service team already. The Bloomberg approach is to help cities create what we call ‘i-teams’ and the i-teams are very similar to the innovation teams that I was creating and running when I was at the state of California, where you have a team that’s focused on using human-centered design techniques to really understand what people need; prototyping solutions, getting really rapid feedback and improving them until you have something that is a product that you can put out there to help solve the problem. San Francisco already has a digital team that’s very much born out of that methodology, so ... figuring out how that’s going to work is something that we’re still working on.

Industry Insider — California: What is the amount of the grant for San Francisco and for Washington, D.C.?

Emanavin: D.C. is about $2.5 million. The amount of the grant for San Francisco is about $3.4 million. ... The idea with the grants is, again, it’s not just to buy technology or not just to buy cloud-based computing or ... even to hire vendors, although some of that is included. The idea of what this really is, is to start to staff up a new function inside the cities. So that once those civil servants are comfortable with the approach and they’re building good things, they will be able to make really great decisions on how to build these products and keep them going. And some of that might include working with certain vendors as they figure out what they’re building. Some of it might include working with certain products, certain off-the-shelf products. With every situation, with every problem in every city, it’s going to be different but that’s what’s so exciting about it is, it’s not a cookie-cutter, everyone has to do the same thing. A phrase I’ve heard that is popular is ‘If you meet six cities, you’ve met six cities.’ Each one is unique. There’s universal things that you can get each group to do to help them problem-define, prototype, all that good stuff. But their actual solution even within the same city is going to be somewhat more bespoke. And that’s what’s really exciting about it is finding the right resources, the right partners, the right everything to deliver the services for the people who live there.

Industry Insider — California: How did your most recent state role help you prepare for your new position?

Emanavin: That role and what we were able to do at CalHHS really crystallized for me how to provide the skills to long-term government employees so that they can be part of the cool kid club. When I was at U.S. Digital Service, you had the ‘cool kids’ coming from Google and Facebook ... saying, ‘This is how you run a huge digital system.’ And for the government folks who worked there, it was a little bit like ‘Well, I’ve dedicated my career to public service. Why aren’t I cool too?' And to me it was like ‘You are!’ ... The idea was that the skill set needed to trend toward product management so that the things you do in government work better with modern service delivery. The role that I was in, figuring out how the training would work, figuring out how the skill sets would work, 100 percent made this job clear, how it could work. So now, I’m just figuring out how do you tweak it for the different level of resources that a city has versus a state and how do you tweak it so that you have better reach into your population because a city is smaller and a lot of times it’s like your neighbors that you’re designing for.

Industry Insider — California: What can you tell us about ongoing work and direction at CHHS?

Emanavin: The statewide Office of Digital Innovation ... they are really focused on trying to make data and innovation work better. I know CalHHS had combined innovation and data into one office, and I think the statewide office is doing a very similar thing. And the benefit of that is, you have your folks who get technology and how technology is an enabler and they’re also working closely with the folks who understand the data and can help you understand, are we making a difference? Are the metrics showing improvement? Are we focusing our attention in the right places? ... We collect all this data and we have no idea what to do with it; I think that’s a problem everybody has. How do we visualize it? How do we use it? I heard somebody today describe them as like ‘middle-level metrics.’ It’s not always the super deep data analysis that takes months and years to get the information. And it’s not always the top level, like numbers of visits to a site. There’s a middle layer of metrics that let you know how are we doing, and sometimes it’s how many calls have we answered on time? How many calls are we getting? Those let you know are people confused? Are people having issues trying to get to your services? Are they confused by it. Having good data partners that can help you understand and use that type of information is going to be key. And then, later on ... you have to have an organization that can help you with data storytelling. And then later on – and I think this is later on – you have to have an organization that can help you with data storytelling. ... I’m a product manager so I’m going to put it around products: You want to be able to tell a good product narrative that ‘We built this thing, it went out, and here is a problem, here’s the numbers that represent that problem, here’s how much it’s improved after we’ve released this product and people are using it.’ Having partners who can help you have that product mindset and that mindset where you’re matching your gut feelings to the data you have available to you is very important.

Industry Insider — California: What IT or innovation project are you proudest of having accomplished in the area of IT during your time at CHHS?

Emanavin: It’s interesting because with Michael Wilkening (Gov. Gavin Newsom’s former special adviser on innovation and digital services), the goal was starting to create culture change amongst the staff to develop those mindsets. The human-centered design mindset. When Secretary Mark Ghaly came on, he embraced that very much. He called it ‘person-centered,’ being a physician, that makes sense. And it’s absolutely the same thing, absolutely the right way to do it. Honestly, what I think I’m most proud of is that what the program turned into was kind of a good leadership development program. I had 30-something staff go through it and COVID-19 obviously changed those plans a little bit, but some of the folks who started the program were thinking of leaving state service. Some of them weren’t sure where they could use their talents best. And after going through the six-week bootcamp and working on projects in my office for a year ... they had a wider view of what the state was doing and how they could be of service. All except one are still with the state. ... I’d say a good majority, more than half of them, have been promoted and are now in leadership or senior leadership or at least team lead positions. ... The ripple effects of the good work that they’re doing are going to continue and grow and I would love to someday come back and put an accelerator on that and make it bigger.

 Industry Insider — California: What IT or innovation project at CHHS do you wish you had had time to complete before leaving?

Emanavin: There’s a few things. I’ve been working a lot with a few different departments within Health and Human Services and part of it was just helping drive better psychological safety and better team dynamics. Back at the Center for Data Insights and Innovation, they’ve been working really hard on the all-hazards dashboard and it’s made really great strides. I’d like to see how it continues to help and also helps them get resources where needed a little bit. ... These little things, they’re not necessarily what you think of when you think of innovation. You think of some cool new whizbang technology. But a lot of times it’s really the innovation is understanding what’s needed well enough to be ready for it. So then it looks like magic but really there was a lot of preparation that was quietly going on before. ... Right before COVID-19 happened, I used to work with a gentleman named John O’Duinn and he wrote an amazing book called Distributed Teams. And I had him come to some of our innovation chats, and he talked about the benefits of distributed teamwork with the technology that’s embedded in our phones and our laptops. ... Specifically with that idea, I had my teams using Zoom; I had us using Google Drive. We were starting to use a little bit of Microsoft Teams. So when the pandemic happened, we were able to go remote that day, no problem. Because we already had Zoom, we were already used to having stand-ups where people were asynchronous, because we were using Slack to do a lot of our five-minute stand-up work. I gladly shared our Zoom licenses with the agency, got more people on Zoom.

Industry Insider — California: What takeaways or lessons learned about IT and innovation would you share from your previous role?

Emanavin: I’d hope that people are patient with the digital innovation or government innovation process in general. Because if you think about California, we’ve been trying this – and I don’t mean this in an insulting way, I mean, it’s true – we’ve tried to create an Office of Digital Innovation before the office was created. I think there were like three attempts before that to create it. It’s not easy to do. ... It involves some capital investment, like the money to bring the people in. But it also requires changing a bit of the mindset so that the team has the room to operate. And it also involves changing some of the structures so that the team is positioned in such a way that they can have appropriate influence on bringing innovation in but be a partner and not a ‘Do it ’cause I told you to’ kind of organization. These things happen; when they happen, good things follow. But it takes time. I would hope that Californians, state government, our partners, everybody’s just really patient with the process. Because it’s happening. It just takes a while.