Rachel Haot on Government + Tech
New York’s Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Secretary is working to make technology one of the government’s most powerful tools.
Known for holding court among Manhattan’s digerati, Rachel Haot, Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Secretary of New York State, is revolutionizing the way government works with technology. Appointed as the city’s first chief digital officer by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, Rachel spearheaded the redesign of NYC.gov in 2011. What she humbly refers to as “research” was innovation at its finest. The city hosted a hackathon—the first government hackathon, ever—inviting 100 participants to spend 38 hours reimagining the future of the city’s website (Rachel told the assembled designers and coders: “The sky’s the limit. This is your opportunity to shape the future of New York.”). Now working with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Rachel is taking a similarly original approach in redesigning NY.gov, which should go live later this fall. In addition to a fully responsive interface, the new site will offer increased social functionality, display local job listings and feature one-stop pages on crowd-sourced topics like "How to Find a Job" and "How to Start a Business." We asked Rachel to download us on the state’s social strategy, landing her dream job and the work she’s doing to pave the way for the future (son, Jack, included).
1. The Social State of New York
Power to the People. Technology has enormous potential to improve government by making it more efficient and collaborative. For the first time, the public is empowered to participate in really fundamental ways. Twitter is important for two-way communication—via @nygovcuomo, the public can find out about major announcements and share their views as fast as the press does. It is increasingly playing a critical role in sharing information during emergencies, like Hurricane Sandy.
Digital is a Means to an End. We’ve made sure we’re adopting the social channels New Yorkers are using—we’re coming to where they’re living online. Too often, an organization says, “we really need to be on these channels and we’ll figure out the rest later.” That’s backwards. We determine the goal we’re trying to achieve and then we back out: what do we know about our audience? What can we sustain? What makes sense for our strategy? The most important thing is to have a goal and put your digital efforts behind it to help you achieve it.
2. Create the career you want.
Pursue your passion. I had no idea what I’d be doing when I graduated. I couldn’t have known because my role literally didn’t exist. But I was laser focused on a niche that I was obsessed with: public service, civic engagement and tech, and I sought out opportunities to do those things. It’s what led me to create GroundReport (a citizen-journalism site that allows anyone with a connection to report a breaking story)—and later to act quickly when I saw the city’s Chief Digital role posted online.
Have a roadmap. Identify your goals at the outset, articulate the objective and put a strategy in place to help you get there. There will be opportunities thrown at you along the way. Don’t let something amazing pass by—but if you follow or respond to every incoming inquiry, you won’t be able to achieve on your long-term vision.
Want a job? Hiring is the most critical function of building a successful operation. I look for resourcefulness, people with perseverance and a commitment to getting things done. I like to see experience, even if unpaid, where a candidate has taken on higher levels of responsibility—editor of the school newspaper, involved in student government—and sought out opportunities to lead and contribute.
Do your homework. In an interview, it’s important to come prepared. I’ll ask candidates, “What would your first six months look like?” It’s also critical that in a digital role, you remember you’re representing something larger than yourself. Look at your social channels and make sure you’re presenting yourself appropriately and professionally.
Success is a moving target. You are in charge of your life, you can go anywhere you want with it. Especially as women, and as individuals in general, the idea of what success is for you is going to evolve over time. What interests you when you’re 20 is not going to be what interests you when you’re 30 and 40. The most important thing is to listen to yourself as you move through these phases, reevaluate and make changes along the way.
3. More than a day job.
Occupation inspiration. I believe in my work and it inspires me daily—I’ve never viewed it as an obligation. As a new mom, there are practical changes to my schedule: I need less sleep than I used to; my days start earlier. What’s surprised me is that that the more you have going on, the more efficient and productive you can be.
Add value. Take responsibility and have an active role in the projects around you. Don’t accept the premise of, “that’s how it’s always been done.” Ask, “Is there another way to do that?” Wherever you are in the pecking order, you can make a profound impact. It takes a bit of extra effort, but it’s worth it. Never underestimate your own agency.
Educate yourself. There are so many organizations in New York and online that support the growing need for continuing ed opportunities: General Assembly, The Flatiron School. The Coalition for Queens has a program for minorities called “Access Code.” Per Scholas is a non-profit teaching minorities, among others, entry-level tech skills that can lead to high-level jobs. The Khan Academy is an online library with thousands of free videos on any educational course you can imagine.
It’s not a zero-sum game. You work at things in different ways—that’s what I’ve learned from having a child. There’s not a limited amount of energy or passion. To the contrary, it only increases. The more inspired you are, the more you can contribute to everything else.
Appreciate the past, prepare for the future. My parents are sort of an interesting mix: my mother had a wonderful career in public service, was a full-time mom and recently went back to work as an RN. My father is an entrepreneur who exposed me to technology from an early age; he’s part of how I caught the bug. And my grandparents—they’ve devoted themselves to public service their entire lives. They’re in their 90s and continue to be engaged in social issues. When I think about my son and his generation, I look at my work in the context of: I have an incredible opportunity to impact our state in some way. What would support the next generation and help them prepare for the future?
Photograph by: Sebastian Kim for vogue.com