Dubliner modernising the city of Palo Alto

Wild Geese: Jonathan Reichental, chief information officer, city of Palo Alto, California

Jonathan Reichental: after college and a stint as guitarist with Dublin band The Wilde Oscars, he got a Morrison visa. He is now chief information officer for the city of Palo Alto, California.

Jonathan Reichental: after college and a stint as guitarist with Dublin band The Wilde Oscars, he got a Morrison visa. He is now chief information officer for the city of Palo Alto, California.

 

Palo Alto might be the birthplace of numerous successful technology firms, but when Dubliner Jonathan Reichental took over as chief information officer for the city in December 2011, he found to his surprise that the place wasn’t quite as tech-savvy as he’d imagined it might be.

Sure the city was home to companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Nest Labs, VMWare and Tesla, but when it came to local government, neither public officials nor citizens of Palo Alto were being well-served due to a combination of antiquated technology and a lack of openness.

Reichental, who comes from Churchtown, but who has spent more than 20 years working in the US, has sought to change this by introducing a range of programmes – including a highly successful open government policy – that have revolutionised the way citizens interact with local authorities.

In leaving the private sector to take on the new role five years ago, Reichental was jumping into the unknown.

But while many of his friends and colleagues thought he was mad, Reichental relished the idea of modernising the city.

“I had a few offers on the table at the time I met the city manager of Palo Alto, which, let us not forget, is known as the birthplace of Silicon Valley,” Reichental said. “He told me that the city might be the global centre of innovation, but that local government was really inefficient.

“He thought I was the guy who could really turn things around through using better technology and by motivating people and, while it took some convincing, I decided it was too interesting a challenge to turn down,” Reichental added.

Under his leadership, Palo Alto has come to be named as one of the top-five digital cities in America three years in succession.

His innovative work in government stateside, which has included broader civic participation through mobile devices, has resulted in a number of awards and in recognition by the White House.

“I’m basically the most senior technology leader and adviser to elected officials and the city, running over 300 systems and using good tech to deliver great services to the public,” he explained.

“We’ve really pushed the envelope in terms of what can be achieved in local government over the last few years, by doing things such as making our data available to anyone who wants to use it. We now have 90 datasets publicly available to anyone in the world.”

Mobile devices

He also rebuilt the city’s data centre and replaced its phone system in a move that saw him ripping out an entire telecoms network across 35 buildings.

“Our strategy was about changing the way both employees and the community think about local government and I think we’ve succeeded.”

That Reichental should find himself in Palo Alto at all was a surprise, not just because he’d been a private-sector guy all his life, but also because he’d lived on the other side of the US for most of his adult life.

After college and a stint as guitarist with Dublin band The Wilde Oscars, he was lucky enough to get a Morrison visa and, after visiting the US a few times, moved over to Florida.

“I came over in February 1996 and, won over by the beach lifestyle, ended up living initially in South Beach in Miami and later on in Tampa Bay while working in a number of key technology-related roles for what was then PricewaterhouseCoopers. I ended up being director of innovation and, despite being told many times I should head out to Silicon Valley because that’s where it was all happening, was pretty happy where I was,” he said.

“However, around 2010, the company was going through some changes and were outsourcing a lot of their technology and that’s when I decided to move on. I went to work as chief information officer for O’Reilly Media, a firm led by Irishman Tim O’Reilly in San Francisco and really enjoyed my time there. After a short time though, I got the call from a headhunter sounding me out about the local government role.

“My gut reaction was ‘not a chance’ as I thought the bureaucracy would kill me – but look at where I am now!” he said.

Big impact

“I’ve enjoyed the exposure to the public sector. There are different motives at play. It’s not about profits. The role has led me to realise how much I want to contribute to the betterment of society.

“While I’m committed to my current role, there’s no doubt that whatever I choose to do next will also need to have some element of social good in it,” he said.

In the interim, his job means that he’s been able to return to Dublin more frequently. He admires the effort being made to turn the capital into a tech hub.

“I get the sense that it’s a case of three steps forward and one back.

“There is progress being made even if it’s happening at a slow pace and, overall, I’d say I’m very impressed with what’s happening in Dublin.”

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