Running IT as a customer-focused organization with Jonathan Feldman


In this episode, I’m joined by CIO Jonathan Feldman. Jonathan is the Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina. One of Jonathan’s core beliefs is that you can’t run IT without being a customer-focused organization.

Civic organizations are not that different from corporate organizations. During his 14-year tenure at the City of Asheville, Jonathan has brought a keen eye toward building trust in the community through transparency and data. During our conversation, Jonathan explains how advocates are your allies, not your enemies.


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Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello, and welcome to The CIO In The Know Podcast, where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection of business and technology. I’m your host Tim Crawford, a CIO, analyst, and strategic advisor at AVOA.

Tim Crawford:               In this episode, I’m joined by CIO Jonathan Feldman. Jonathan is the Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina. One of Jonathan’s core beliefs is that you can’t run IT without being a customer-focused organization. Civic organizations are not that different from corporate organizations. During his 14-year tenure at the City of Asheville, Jonathan has brought a keen eye toward building trust in the community through transparency and data. During our conversation, Jonathan explains how advocates are actually your allies, not your enemies.

Tim Crawford:               Jonathan, welcome to the program.

Jonathan:                     Thanks so much, Tim.

Tim Crawford:               Jonathan, you’re the CIO for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, and you’ve done some pretty interesting things. The first thing I wanted to ask you about was this really interesting open data portal, especially as we talk about data enablement and the importance of data enablement on the CIO’s agenda. Can you talk a little bit about the portal and some of the other things that you’re doing around that?

Jonathan:                     Absolutely. Back in 2012, staff and I were getting all of these public records requests and it became clear that it was completely insane to fulfill these in a bespoke way. What we could do if we had some automated means, instead of fulfilling it multiple times, we could just fulfill it once. We started looking into ways of doing that and the answer was there were a couple of government entities that were doing this thing called open data. There weren’t any in our neck of the woods. There weren’t any in our part of the world, but we thought it was really important to do.

Jonathan:                     Interestingly, before we ever went to the open data portal, which is an automated way of getting public records, we thought it was maybe a good idea to sit down with all of the stakeholders and talk through all of the potential issues and all the potential needs that we were fulfilling, right?

Tim Crawford:               You mentioned the stakeholders, and I have to imagine for a civic organization, the number of stakeholders takes on a markedly more complicated environment as compared to a corporate entity. Can you talk a little more about both stakeholders, but then how you start to create that political balance with your customers both with regards to data, but just how you engage?

Jonathan:                     Sure. For a public institution, I think what we need to remember is that the community is what should be driving us, right? That’s not true at all levels of government. That’s not true for all governments, but ideally that’s what should be driving us. The community elects their representatives. The representatives are generally some kind of board and they generally appoint a chief executive. As a public entity, we work with primarily the chief executive’s office, but we also deal with department heads because it’s through department collaboration that we create public technology services.

Jonathan:                     At the same time, the entire reason we exist is because the community elects an elected board and so we’re primarily here to do the public’s business, obviously. Part of that business is transparency, but as you might imagine in government, there’s always this … Not reluctance, but there tends to be a fear of data, and this was certainly true back in 2012 more so than today where we have more of a culture of transparency.

Jonathan:                     I think it’s even true in the private sector. Folks don’t release data because they think, “Oh, it’s draft. It’ll make us look bad. We really need to close the month before we release data to anybody.” All of those I don’t want to be embarrassed, I don’t want to be wrong, I don’t want to be seen as failing type of emotions are what lead to folks not being as transparent as they could be, which necessarily then means stakeholders are less agile.

Tim Crawford:               When you kind of get into the head of understanding what that stakeholder looks like, what that customer looks like, is this a role that you as the senior-most person in IT takes? Or … Where does your team kind of fit into this?

Jonathan:                     Well, we sort of have an usual, or at least unusual for the time, IT services team. We have a team that specifically exists … We organized … Reorganized in about 2013 to have a team that is the public technology group. It’s obviously my mission to make sure that the community gets what they need, but there’s also a team that’s specifically there to make sure that we’re doing not only public technology service deployment, but also data engagement. Engagement with the community around data. The community can be department heads, it could be the folks in the field, firefighters, folks who do water meter data collection, but a lot of times it’s just regular folks like you and me in the community.

Tim Crawford:               Let’s maybe shift gears a little bit. There is this concept of moving not just within your own organization but how you start to move the conversation in terms of the executives and the corporate arrangement, the board. The board, the CEO, the CIO, what’s your take on that relationship today?

Jonathan:                     I think of the chief executive … I know that there are a lot of businesses that have a chief customer officer, but I do think that the chief executive as the penultimate chief customer officer. I think that’s true in the case of cities, right? The city manager needs to understand what’s happening in the community and the city manager needs to be meeting with community groups and taking the temperature. I think in general, because we live in the age of really fast information transmittal, really cheap information and knowledge transmittal and because there’s a kind of social Darwinism going on where when you as a corporation release a terrible product, people know about it 15 milliseconds later, right?

Jonathan:                     The same thing is true of government, and so I think the best way that a CIO can stay close to the CEO and the board is by staying close to the customer.

Tim Crawford:               How do you stay engaged with your executive?

Jonathan:                     I think when you get to an organization where you haven’t been in that vertical before, your first mission is to learn everything about that organization that you possibly can, the type of organization. When I got to the City of Asheville, I’d never worked for a city before, so what did I do? I went and I took a municipal administration class, which is the class that you take if you want to be a city manager.

Jonathan:                     All of a sudden, I was equipped with the vocabulary … I mean, I wasn’t ready to be a city manager of a city as large as Asheville or anything like that, but I was equipped with the vocabulary. I was equipped with the problems that most chief executives of a city face, and I have found that through my career when I do that, whatever vertical I’m with, I tend to do a whole lot better, right? If you didn’t know anything about HIPAA, working for a hospital, you’re really gonna be in trouble and so on. I think that’s probably the single-most important thing you can do as the CIO of any vertical is just understand the business. Understand the mission deeply.

Tim Crawford:               There has been some conversation that it’s adequate enough just to look at papers, look at data, and be able to understand your customer. What actions do you take to really kind of understand your executive? If they’re really the chief customer officer in some ways, how do you understand who your customer is? Who that stakeholder is?

Jonathan:                     I think you gotta get out of the building. I think you gotta get out from behind the desk, and you’ve got to be with the customer, right? For example, I tend to go to certain community meetings. My staff goes to certain community meetings. We get in with the various segments because there’s always customer segments, right? For a city, it’s customer segments like the developer community. It’s customer segments like small business owners, but it’s also neighborhood goods. It’s also advocates. We don’t need to get into this today, but I think one of the mistakes that a lot of folks in city government make is to treat advocates as non being a legitimate customer group because, oh by the way, they are, right?

Tim Crawford:               Can you maybe talk about what an advocate is? For those that [crosstalk 00:10:31]-

Jonathan:                     Sure.

Tim Crawford:               Might not understand? Just a rudimentary kind of basis.

Jonathan:                     An advocate is basically somebody who’s saying, “I don’t think things are going well and I am advocating that they happen differently.” That could be something pretty tame like, “We really want parking to work better.” Okay, we’ll listen to you there and you say you want the ability to get parking information on your smartphone. Okay, we can do that. Or maybe we won’t do that. Maybe there’s funding issues or whatever. It can get pretty hot, too. In the consumer world, product defects. There are advocates about product defects.

Jonathan:                     In city government, unfortunately, sometimes we have massive breaches of public trust and when those massive breaches of public trust happen, I think that the responsible thing to do is to treat those folks as carriers of information on behalf of everybody else because they’re the folks showing up to the meetings. They’re volunteering their time and not getting paid and yet they want something better for the community. I think as employees of city government, we have to remember that everything that we do really should link back to the community, and so we should treat people who want to make the community better and make city government more trusted as really our allies and not our enemies.

Tim Crawford:               I have to imagine that there are some complexities that come from that, too, because you also would have to contend with someone that is incredibly passionate, maybe even to the point of protesting a particular … I don’t know … A particular statue or a particular way that the government is run or a particular individual that’s leading an aspect of government. Something that they are passionate about. How do you ensure that you are bringing those voices in in an appropriate way?

Jonathan:                     Well, first I’ll say nobody’s perfect, but I think that the biggest mistake you can do is not try, right? To say, “I can’t be perfect and therefore let’s not even bother.” One example would be when we had a video disclosed … It was leaked somehow from our police department of a body cam of an officer brutally beating an African-American man, unarmed, walking home from work. You can imagine the public outcry that happened after that, and there were protests and there was a petition.

Jonathan:                     Those are all things that we should have expected because that wasn’t a failure of just the police department, that was a failure of city government. Everybody who works in city government absolutely wanted to do everything that we could do to make things if not right, at least to do the right next steps. One of those steps that the community was asking for was dramatically more transparency from our police department. As you might imagine, that’s not always easy.

Tim Crawford:               Sure. I have to believe that, again, it comes back to balance. You have to think about the benefit of the public, but then also there are other complications that come into that where you might want to be more transparent, everybody might want to be more transparent, but there might be reasons that you can’t go into it as to why you can’t be transparent.

Jonathan:                     Well, once you actually get everyone to the table, and I mean everyone, once you get the advocates, once you get the departments involved, once you get the data experts, and once you get management at the table, the funny thing is that when you bring up the issues in a respectful way, the advocates say, “Oh, I totally get that.” I’ll give you an example. It’s sort of difficult to release what the demographic and the gender of an officer is with use of force data and use of force is when a police officer has to use force to subdue a suspect and that kind of thing. It’s kind of hard to release the gender and the race in some instances.

Jonathan:                     For example, let’s say you have one Latina woman in the whole of patrol. If you release that data in use of force, you correlate Latina and woman and all of a sudden now you know exactly who was applying that use of force, which is not okay-

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Jonathan:                     And that’s a real example and the citizens involved agreed to abstract that a little bit and do it more to chunk it differently.

Tim Crawford:               Sure, sure. Presenting the data in a very different way so that you can still accomplish the objectives that everyone is hoping for but-

Jonathan:                     That’s right.

Tim Crawford:               You’re not bringing other factors into the mix that you all agree shouldn’t be there. The interesting thing as we go through this conversation and some that would be listening might be going, “Okay, this is … You’re talking about civic situations”, but I see a lot of parallels between the challenges you have and the challenges that you’ve been able to overcome as their CIO with those that live in the corporate world.

Tim Crawford:               Let’s kind of shift gears a little bit into this concept of the traditional CIO and the transformational CIO. This is a hot button, right? The traditional CIO, very tech focused, it’s about the tech. The transformational CIO tends to be more business- or customer-focused. I want to get your take on this and also kind of what you think is causing this shift.

Jonathan:                     Tim, I can’t imagine not running IT as a people business. I think that even if you have the best technology in the world, if the people are doing the wrong things with it, you’re just failing and you’re failing hard. I can’t imagine not being customer-focused. Throughout out my whole career, through growing up, that kind of thing, all success that you ever have is by being helpful.

Jonathan:                     When I was taking one job and moving my family, my 10-year-old said to me one time, “Dad, what if they don’t like you? We’re moving. Then what?” I said, “Son, I’m gonna tell you what my father told me, which is, ‘It doesn’t matter what else happens. If you go into a job and you’re looking to help people and it’s not about anything else primarily … It’s not about the money, it’s not about the glory, it’s not about making yourself look big … If you go in there and you sincerely are there to help people, it’s gonna be okay.'”

Tim Crawford:               That’s great, and what a great teaching moment, too.

Jonathan:                     Indeed.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, so kind of as we wrap here, ’cause this has just been an absolutely fascinating conversation and from such a unique perspective, too … It’s not the traditional corporate perspective, which is great. I think those differing of thought is something that we need more of. What excites you most about the CIO role today and where it’s headed? When you think about where it’s going, when you think about your role at the City of Asheville as well as just the role as a whole, as a profession, what excites you most?

Jonathan:                     The thing that excites me most is that I think we are at the beginning, middle, or end of the end of IT and the beginning of something actually wonderful. When we talk about this digital transformation thing, we talk about everything from customer focus. We talk about usability. We talk about conversion. We talk about metrics. At the end of the day, if we really get there, it means we’re doing everything from lower training burden, higher trust in the organization, more useful software, more useful digital systems, which of course will then make fewer so-called “shadow systems”, we could talk for another half hour about that. We’re gonna start moving from a place where people can’t stand IT, which is what I call sociopath IT, and we’re gonna move to a place where we’re delighting customers. Where folks say IT is the best part of going to work. That’s what excites me.

Tim Crawford:               That’s a great place to wrap right there, and it’s very customer-centric, very customer-focused. That becomes your North Star. Jonathan, thanks so much for your time today and sharing your perspective on these different aspects. I think it’s really important, even regardless of your coming from another civic organization or a corporate organization, there’s so many nuggets within this podcast to unpack even further and to learn from. Jonathan, thank you so much.

Jonathan:                     Thanks for having me, Tim.

Tim Crawford:               For more information on The CIO In The Know Podcast Series, visit us online at, or you can find us on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Don’t forget to subscribe and thank you for listening.

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