Debra Lam is standing in the atrium of the City County Building, stately rows of gilded classical columns rising 47-feet above her. She smiles confidently for the photographer, a picture of someone at home with a new job, a job that has brought her home.
Debra, 32, is the City of Pittsburgh’s first chief of innovation & performance, a high profile position she is inventing in a role that draws on her far-flung international expertise.
As a member of Mayor Peduto’s executive cabinet, she leads a team of 70 some people working in the areas of technology, sustainability, performance and innovation for city government.
This puts her squarely in the ring with some of the city’s toughest day-to-day challenges. Working with city information systems and handling the 311 response line for things like pothole repair or broken streetlights. Finance, Act 47 and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority all report to her.
Aside from a brief stint with the U.S. State Department, this is Debra’s first job in the public sector. Her qualifications—her dossier is long on accolades—are impressive for her age. A Pittsburgh native and graduate of North Hills High School, she graduated cum laude from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and earned a masters in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley.
From there she stepped onto the global stage, working for more than a decade for organizations around the world, including global consulting and design firm, Arup, the World Bank, and C40 Cities.
Her travels have taken her from Beijing to London to Hong Kong where she engaged in issues ranging from policy and socially responsible investments to sustainability and climate change. And she speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese.
So what enticed this whip-smart, culturally savvy professional to boomerang to her hometown with her husband John? Mayor Bill Peduto, she says matter-of-factly.
“I’ve advised many other cities, why not my hometown?” she explains, sitting at her desk on the sixth floor of the city county building, home to the new department. “The timing was really great.”
She is eager do her part in transforming the city into a world-class model of sustainability. And that makes her a great example of the kind of talent and energy the mayor wants to attract and keep here.
“The next Pittsburgh is going to built by newcomers, including immigrants, just as the city we inherited was,” says Mayor Peduto. “While Debra isn’t exactly a newcomer, she brings great, globally recognized talents back to the city, and I’m working every day to attract more people like her.”
Debra points out that Pittsburgh isn’t all that different from other cities in the rest of the world. It faces many of the same challenges that confront others struggling to keep pace in the 21st century.
As illustration, she shares the story of a project she worked on for C40 Cities that addressed the flooding of the lower Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. Despite a century of flooding, the people thrived, she says, due in large part to their knowledge and understanding of the problem.
For a foreign group to sweep in with a studied list of solutions would have been disastrous, she says. Instead, upon arriving, her team spent several months meeting with local stakeholders and learning about the problem from the perspective of the people.
“It was a process and very challenging, but once we got to that point (of making recommendations) we had really built a relationship and had an understanding of the community and the people.”
She plans to take a similar approach in Pittsburgh, building relationships through a foundational process. The overarching plan is to work from the bottom up to integrate the “two Pittsburghs,” a goal at the heart of the mayor’s vision for the city.
“It’s the only way to make sure no one is lost in the process,” she says.
What would you most like to accomplish in the coming year?
My plan is to take a step back in the first quarter to understand what’s going on, what is happening and why is it happening this way. As I mentioned, I don’t believe in coming in with change. It’s really important for me to just absorb feedback and suggestions.
Many people working for the city have been here for decades. They know the city a lot better than I do. I’m humbled by their resilience. They’ve survived several administrations and have been able to continue to service Pittsburgh residents.
People work here not because of the high salary or the glamorous lifestyle. Many feel a certain civic duty. Technical staff, for instance, can earn three times as much in the private sector. I could never offer what Google or private companies can offer. But what I can offer is a sense of purpose.
I will work toward understanding the Mayor’s vision for the next Pittsburgh and with the team to set up targets. We want to make Pittsburgh a world-class city. But we can’t get there without a strong foundation.
What happens once the assessment is done?
I see a mix of internal and external projects, both long and short term, on all levels. We need external projects and initiatives that reflect sound policy. Does it make sense for Pittsburgh and the people?
On an internal, personnel level, each person has goals that drive their work. We should be able to tell if someone is able to perform well or if they face barriers. We should all be evaluated in our jobs. This 360-degree evaluation has many facets. Typical evaluations are from the top down, but there needs to be a feedback loop that reflects how managers are doing. How am I doing? Peers should be included in this. A feedback loop will allow me to better do my job.
What will success look like?
A fine-tuned team that works together really well and anticipates the challenges and opportunities before they become a problem. Thinking outside the box. It’s really important for everyone to understand the procedures and assumptions before they go outside the box. We frequently hear “well, that’s the way it is done.” Can we do things another way? Should it be done at all?
We want better service to residents. Better information flows. Increased accountability in the different departments.
You mentioned changing the physical space to one of a more open environment?
We need to create an environment that produces the most from people.
People here work 10 to 12-hour workdays. If they are working here that much, we want to create an environment that incentivizes communication.
As in any traditional office, everyone has cubicles. They are small and lack sunlight. There are lots of files and papers stacked up everywhere. It’s not the most welcoming environment. We need to create physical space and also promote more engagement.
I can’t just say, “okay, open culture.” Some will be early-adopters, others will be laggers and still others will be in the middle. I need to make sure people feel open enough with me to create a process.
I can move things around until my head turns blue but that won’t accomplish anything if I don’t accompany it with a process or engagement. This is one of my top priorities—to be fully supportive while clearing a path to do what people need to be able to do.
Have any changes taken place so far?
One of the first things I did in the first few weeks was to expand our help desk hours. They were 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. but a lot of city workers don’t operate on that schedule. We expanded from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. so now have a 12-hour shift.
What was great is the help desk team did it all. They worked out a staggered work time, which was fantastic. It reflects a city department that was able to support the reality of city workers.
We’re also looking at expanding the hours of 311. We started taking service requests through Twitter. So now you can contact (311) in person, over the phone, by email and through Twitter, and all at a zero cost to us.
Have you met any of the other innovation or performance officers in other cities?
One of the first things I did when I was hired was I started contacting my counterparts in other cities, asking them what they did on a day-to-day basis. They were super supportive.
Everyone gave me information on city initiatives. We also agreed to keep in touch. This is a new thing for Pittsburgh and some cities have been doing this for a long time, so there is much we can learn.
Any good ideas out there that we can steal?
Oh tons. There are lots of great ideas, but it will take time. It’s going to be a process.
By the same token, I hope to be in a position where we are showcasing our best practices and ideas so other cities can learn from Pittsburgh. Won’t that be grand? That’s my goal, to get to a place where we are setting the standards.
What is the biggest thing that distinguishes your department from other city departments?
Pittsburgh has a really strong identity that we’re really proud of. That’s not something that you can impose or create. It’s the magic. Generation after generation chooses to stay in Pittsburgh and make it better. That’s a really important component going forward. What’s great is that enthusiasm is shared with visitors and new people coming to the city. It rubs off.
What would you most like people to know about you?
I’m pretty approachable. If you have a question, you can ask. I’m open to criticism and feedback. If something’s not working, tell me. I can take it. My team knows I have pretty high expectations for them. I have higher expectations for myself and that drives a lot of things. We have an obligation to our residents and fulfilling that is a huge responsibility. That’s what keeps me up at night in terms of the huge task ahead. We are in a position to make things better, and we can achieve it if we work hard.