How public sector CIOs can help bridge the digital divide

Public sector CIOs have countless opportunities today to make a difference, not only within our own four walls, but also within the communities we serve
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The Atlanta Housing Authority is one of the largest in the nation: We serve 23,000 households, which amounts to about 66,000 participants. Our goal is to provide amenity-rich affordable housing, which, within IT, means we are striving to provide our participants with quality technology and technology experiences.

This can be a challenge as a public sector CIO, given the need to be productive and efficient. Today, however, we are on the brink of opportunity: We have the ability to help the communities we serve by bridging the digital divide.

At the Atlanta Housing Authority, our IT team is working hard to think big. We’re committed not only to better serve our participants through connectivity, hardware, and digital literacy, but also, internally, we’re aiming to maximize our productivity and efficiency.

3 ways we're bridging the digital divide

As people become more reliant on the Internet for job searches and other aspects of everyday living, connectivity becomes even more important.

Access to technology and the Internet isn’t something that the majority of higher-income Americans think twice about. But for those earning less than $30,000, just 45 percent have access. As people become more reliant on the Internet for job searches and other aspects of everyday living, connectivity becomes even more important. For those reasons, our team is focused on three initiatives: providing hardware, ensuring connectivity, and improving digital literacy.

  • Hardware: We want to ensure that households have the hardware they need, whether it’s a laptop or a tablet. This requires partnering with an agency or working to acquire donations.
  • Connectivity: We may not be able to give each of the 66,000 participants their own Wi-Fi hotspot, but we can at least start by providing one in the common areas of all of our facilities. We are working to partner with internet service providers to negotiate a charitable agreement or a way to subsidize it.
  • Digital literacy: With hardware and connectivity in place, it’s important for participants of all ages to have a digital foundation. If our senior citizens want to play bingo or Sudoku or video chat with their grandchildren, they should feel confident in accessing those applications on their own tablet. 

In addition to these three initiatives, we’re also working to provide a more robust approach to help some of our participants — those graduating high school or looking for a career change, for example — to move into new roles in the workforce. One way we’re doing this is through a cohort program in which we provide our participants with specialized IT or cybersecurity training.

These initiatives are part of the quality, amenity-rich, affordable housing mission we’re dedicated to. In order for our participants to take this to the next level, become self-sufficient, and ultimately graduate from our program, we must bridge that digital divide. 

How we're maximizing IT productivity and potential

Complacency can be an easy trap to fall into when you’re a government agency—there’s no real outside competition and finding that drive to really push yourself can be difficult. 

For these reasons, we’re working to cultivate a culture of creativity that’s predicated on maximizing productivity and profitability while inspiring our team to think big—just as we would if we had shareholders keeping us accountable to quarterly goals. This is what allows us to be our best.

To make this happen, we’re keeping a pulse on our team’s roles, responsibilities, and goals. Once or twice a year we develop a skills matrix that lists all of our resources. This helps us reconcile employee job descriptions with their current roles and responsibilities against the roles and responsibilities they want. This ensures that our team members are actually doing what they like to do, ultimately resulting in higher productivity. We are constantly reevaluating this—we want to maximize our individual potential before maximizing the potential of the team, and ultimately the organization.

We’re also working to create an environment that promotes creativity. While we may not have a big research and development department, we want every shop to have some R&D happening, even if it’s one day a month where people work on new ideas.

Another focus is creating an environment in which it’s OK to fail. That doesn’t mean employees have carte blanche to make reckless mistakes that bring the organization to a screeching halt—it’s more “failing forward.” If our team members don’t feel free to fail, they won’t be their creative best, which won’t allow us to maximize our potential.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is making sure we have a comprehensive strategy that’s anchored by the overarching strategy of the organization. When we receive the organization’s goals, we need to have some very specific IT goals that are supportive of them. And, of course, these goals must be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

Public sector CIOs have countless opportunities today to make a difference, not only within our own four walls, but also within the communities we serve. In working to bridge the digital divide, we're challenging ourselves to think bigger, outside the box, and with creativity and productivity at the forefront.

Brian Benn is Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President of the Atlanta Housing Authority. Brian is responsible for the development and implementation of technology strategies that are aligned with and anchored by the overarching strategy of the agency, ultimately supporting the 25,000 households and 70,000 participants served.