Ensuring a major U.S. city’s survival during COVID-19 is challenging enough, let alone leading it towards commendable modernization efforts aimed at making its residents’ lives better. Cincinnati may be in the Rust Belt, but its city management team is far from rusty. 

Manned by a talented workforce and forceful leadership, the city has managed to perform beautifully in technological solutions, including the massive undertaking of providing Wi-Fi access to identified lower-income neighborhoods. 

As Assistant City Manager, John Juech gets to see and participate in all these efforts firsthand. Listen as he shares how fruitful that experience has been for him as he joins Abhijit Verekar on the show.

 AV: My guest is John Juech, Assistant City Manager for the City of Cincinnati, Ohio. John, welcome to the show.

JJ: It’s great to be with you. Thanks for inviting me. I’m looking forward to this.

 AV: You’re in Cincinnati, Ohio, my old home state. I’ve got some family in Cincinnati and always loved visiting the great city. Let’s start off with your personal journey. How did you come to become the assistant city manager of a major city in the United States?

JJ: It’s been an interesting journey that led me here. I’ve always had an interest in public service, in government, and in cities in urban studies. I got an Urban Studies minor as an undergrad. I’m a Political Science Major. I then got very into international affairs and went to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in D.C., ended up working for the UN for a few years after that in West Africa. 

I was in the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations on the peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone. That was the 2004 and 2005 timeframe, and then got recruited to work for the U.S. Congress in mainly a foreign affairs capacity. 

The nature of working as a congressional aid is you end up getting pulled into a bit of everything. I ended up working on transportation policy, energy policy, appropriations policy, foreign affairs, traveled a bit with my boss overseas, which was a great experience to represent the U.S. in that way.

During that period that I was working on Capitol Hill in D.C., which I enjoyed, I met my now wife, Kate Schroder who is from Cincinnati. Long story short, we ended up getting married and starting a family. She wanted to raise our kids back here as opposed to the D.C. area. I had never lived here before, but we moved to Cincinnati in 2013, where she’s from. A lot of family support, family ties, and I ended up getting involved in local government. 

I ran a city council race. I ended up running the office of vice mayor, David Mann for a while and got recruited to work in the city manager’s office first as a senior policy advisor and then as assistant city manager and started that role in 2015. It’s been a great journey ever since I’ve learned a tremendous amount. 

I’ve had my share of ups and downs, but I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to serve the public. I have always been motivated by public service in a lot of different capacities, whether it’s working at the UN, working for the U.S. Congress, or here at city hall. I enjoy public service and giving back.

AV: The experience you’ve had overseas working in Africa, working for Congress, I haven’t met someone of your profile before, not in city government, especially. I’m sure you bring a lot of global knowledge and best practices to the job. 

I’ve always maintained that city managers and assistant city managers have one of the coolest jobs because you’re not in politics, but you’re involved with public service. It’s not a glamorous role. It’s not something that has a spotlight on it in most cases, but at the same time, you impact lives every day. 

We can go off on many tangents now, but I want to stay on topic. The theme of this show is innovation in government and that can mean many things. You’re not from a tech background. Tell me what innovation means to you and how you apply it in your day-to-day job.

JJ: Innovation is important. I have the belief that things are always changing, and you have to embrace that change and believe with regard to cities that if you’re not growing and evolving in a city context, you’re dying. 

The challenge for cities is always to be innovating, always be open to change, always trying to grow. We see a lot of cities in the U.S. that their heydays were in the past. Especially for older cities like Cincinnati. I don’t love the term “rust belt”, but in this part of the country, older established cities, the challenge is to innovate, manage change, and make sure that we’re growing and looking for not only the next thing but evolving and being in positioning ourselves as places that people want to live, want to start a company, and want to raise a family.

That is top of mind for everyone here in Cincinnati. Our mayor, John Cranley, is oriented toward those things and has done a good job keeping an emphasis on growth during his time. I’ve learned a lot from people here in Cincinnati that have that mentality. Tech and IT are all part of that, making sure that we’re branded as a city that is open to new technology, open to change, and utilizing it to make citizen’s lives better.

 AV: Your portfolio is economic development and a bunch of other things. You have to be not on the bleeding edge, but looking at what worldwide best practices are for major cities across the world and bringing them to Cincinnati. How do you cut through the noise? 

With tech, especially, there’s so much going on, things change rapidly, and you get bombarded with new ideas multiple times a day. What’s your methodology to identify things that you think are valuable and take them up the chain?

JJ: We are bombarded. It’s the case that wherever you work this day in age, you’re constantly being bombarded with information, sales pitches, and all that. I’m a big reader both of books, but also the written word in all its forms, newspapers, and periodicals. I know a lot of that stuff has moved to digital now, which is good, but I’m one of these people. 

Crazy enough, I still get two physical newspapers delivered to my house every day, both the Cincinnati Enquirer and the New York Times. I’m a dinosaur that way, but I still start my day by reading the newspaper. I like to stay on top of what’s going on in the world. Some people asked me why I follow national and international news closely. I was reading about the coup and everything going on in Burma, Myanmar.

It’s important to know what’s going on in the world and have that orientation. It’s relevant to Cincinnati. I try to stay on top of what other cities are doing, what interesting policy ideas they have going on, what debates they have going on. I find that a lot of the debates that are going on in other large cities, be the superstar cities or cities closer to us in size or even smaller cities, they end up making their way here one way or another. 

We’re not immune to those national trends or national debates. Oftentimes, I feel equipped that when an issue becomes big here, I may have read something about it in the context of another place. It’s important to stay abreast of what’s going on.

It may not seem relevant to the IT space, but I think it is relevant to the IT space. I also try to pay attention to what’s going on with new technologies and what are the tech companies doing. I was an early adopter of Apple and a lot of their products. I am interested in the trends in tech. I wouldn’t say that I’m a “techie.” I can’t code or anything like that, but I like to know what’s going on in that space. 

I have friends that work for tech companies that I keep in touch with. I do try to position myself on the leading edge of what’s happening. I think there are plenty of people out there that know more about the space than I do, but I think I know enough to be dangerous.

 AV: From a consumer perspective, I can’t code either. People think I’m this coding guru. I can, but I choose not to. The real value is identifying, like you said, keeping your ear to the ground, seeing what’s coming, what the trends are, and applying them to solve real problems that citizens or your staff inside city hall people might have. 

The other point you made that was very important is the democratization of information. People are not reading the same newspaper every day. While it has its downsides, it also means that you have access to the world’s information, the world’s knowledge from forever, and how you choose to apply it is based on what your aptitude is. There are some cool tasks there.

In my experience, thinking along those lines is the foundation of a good strategy for running any organization, be it in the city government, local government, or states. At the same time, you have to interface with people that will implement your pie-in-the-sky ideas sometimes. How do you interface your well-read mind and vision with somebody that has to implement a certain policy or a practice using technology? 

The question arises from people that only speak code. They only speak technology or blinky lights. They don’t quite have the breadth of knowledge or exposure to world events and history as you and I might have. What’s your approach to translating all of that into things that can get done?

JJ: A lot of these ideas are only as good as they can be implemented, and we spend a lot of time here trying to figure out what is the implementation of these. I do think you’re only as good as your people and HR, hiring, and staffing are incredibly important. 

We’re lucky here in the city of Cincinnati to have a talented workforce. I’m constantly impressed by people on our team and people that know way more about several topic areas than I do. I’ve learned a lot from them. I liked some of the tech and data people. We’ve had some good people. Some of them have come and gone, but that’s fine too. People have to pursue their own passions, careers, and look for that next step.

You’ve always got to be hiring. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got a pipeline of people and that you’re bringing in talented people. I think that’s important. In any executive role, whatever you’re doing, any walk of life, any industry, you’ve got to surround yourself with talented people, certainly in tech. We think that those people skew younger and sometimes they do, but we have some great seasoned people in the tech space here in the city that has been doing it for a while. 

I also think one of the other things that come to mind that we have here in the city is we have a smart cities advisory group where we have five people that have a background in the tech space, on the private side that advises the city on a whole range of IT and smart cities related stuff. We only meet once a quarter, but that’s been good to expose me to people that are way smarter in that space than I am. 

When I think of those people, they’re all very talented in their own right. It’s not only the people that you have on your governmental staff, but also making sure that you’re seeking out people that are thought leaders and have the background in this space on the private side of the nonprofit side. 

A huge thing is exposing yourself to people that are smarter than you, that have experiences or ideas that you may not have, and that you’re trying to learn from them. I always feel that I have more to do there, but I think it’s very important.

 AV: You mentioned smart cities and it’s commendable that the cities have panel because that’s another term that can mean different things to different people. It gets thrown around a lot and there always has to be context, like you said, things need to be implementable and useful, not just cool. What is your definition of a smart city?

JJ: We like to joke here in the city that smart cities have 1,000 different definitions. You could pull 100 people and they would all have a different definition. For me, it’s simple. It’s implementing technology to make the citizens’ lives better. Staying on top of technology and connecting it to practical things that citizens face, be it making pedestrian safety safer, which is a big thing, reducing crime. 

We’re using a lot of camera technology to link up to our police to try and reduce crime in high crime areas. We have rolled out this technology, like other people that pick at it, but it’s called ShotSpotter, which allows you to do some 3D tracing when there’s a bullet, when there’s a gun mused, anywhere in your city. You can triangulate it to figure out where exactly the gun was shot and then even gives you some data on the type of gun and that type of stuff.

The police have found it helpful in solving crimes and even some cold cases from the past. They believe in it. The technology is still evolving and being refined. I’m not going to say it’s perfect, but we have rolled that out in different neighborhoods. 

Those are examples of where we’re leveraging technology to solve real-world problems in the here and now, aimed at making citizens’ lives better and solving some of these pressing challenges like gun violence or pedestrian safety. There are many others. Those are a couple of examples.

 AV: It’s a great example of useful technology. One of the other problems that we hear a lot is the digital divide. In your role, it’s not a direct problem for you to solve, but it is an economic development problem. It’s turning out to be where kids that have been sent home because of COVID or people that don’t have access to what’s becoming quickly utility internet access.

JJ: I think it’s a great point. Let me give you a couple of examples of what we’re doing here in Cincinnati. The digital divide is a huge issue, and I think it is an economic development issue. It’s also a human development issue and frankly, an issue of real economic injustice. 

When everything went virtual in 2020 with schools and everything like that, we identified that as a huge problem, the mayor and others got very engaged. I was responsible for figuring out how we were going to help with all this virtual schooling. We leaped into gear over the summer. 

What we did is we connected digitally using Wi-Fi partnering with a great local company, Cincinnati Bell, to hook up all our rec centers, which are in almost every neighborhood throughout the city with good, high quality, high-speed Wi-Fi which a lot of these rec centers did not have before this summer.

It didn’t even cost an inordinate amount. We figured out a way to pay for it. It was a priority for the mayor and the city manager. We hooked up all our rec centers, or at least the vast majority, 23, with Wi-Fi so that when schools went virtual in the fall, kids, especially low-income kids, could go to any of these rec centers and get online and participate in some of their classes. 

There were some hiccups, initially. I remember being on some calls, we encountered some challenges and some problems, but I’m proud to say we got it done. I want to thank the mayor and city manager for their leadership. We couldn’t have gotten it done without Cincinnati Bell, which is a great local company. Our rec staff, led by Daniel Betts, made this a priority.

I was personally involved. That was an awesome project that has paid dividends. At any given time throughout the school year, we’ve had hundreds of kids going to our rec centers during the day to get online. Despite all the challenges of the pandemic, that’s been a cool thing. 

We’ve also partnered with Cincinnati Bell to identify some neighborhoods in the city that are under-resourced or don’t have a lot of Wi-Fi access. We’ve challenged them to light up one neighborhood, generally, a lower-income or under-resourced neighborhood with free Wi-Fi during any given calendar year. They’ve stepped up big. They’ve got a great CEO, Lee Fox, who’s made this a priority and they’ve been a great partner with us. We’ve made it a priority to address some of these issues. That’s not to say we don’t have a long way to go. We do, but we’ve made what I think is real and notable progress.

 AV: We’ve done similar stuff down here in Tennessee, lit up a local mall with Wi-Fi through the county’s blessings, and working with the electric department, library, and some high schools. We’re in the middle of piloting a technology called CBRS, which used to be a Navy broadband frequency, but they’ve opened it up to civilian use. 

What that does, Wi-Fi, you’ve got a certain radius you have to stay within. CBRS can broadcast a decent signal up to two miles or so. If the terrain’s right. We can talk about that offline. The digital divide is becoming a huge problem. What’s most commendable is that it sounds like everyone on your team agrees that it’s a problem. That’s not the case everywhere

JJ: We’ve had some great political leadership in this area. Our elected officials get the challenge and have been very energetic and great leaders. To get stuff done in local municipal government, you’ve got to have a committed, hardworking, competent city administration, but you also have to have the leadership of your elected leaders. They have to identify these problems and throw their weight behind solving them. By and large, in this area, we have had that here. 

It’s commendable and I want to salute our elected leaders for prioritizing this. Especially the project I talked to about with the rec centers and identifying that there are going to be kids in the 2021 school year that had a slew of challenges that you wouldn’t ordinarily have because of the pandemic. A lot of people came together and it’s a good story.

 AV: COVID has thrown up a bunch of challenges and you were the frontline when the pandemic hit. We’re in it for some time. It’s unbelievable in some ways and it’s like, it was in a flash. Let me give you an example, the digital divide has always been around. It’s not a new challenge. It was highlighted and turned on because of the pandemic. What else, as a civic leader or an administrator, have you had to combat, adapt to, and be innovative in solving that problem?

JJ: I’ve never experienced anything like that. I don’t think anyone has. You name the challenge; we’ve seen it in municipal operations. We’ve had staff going down with COVID, we’ve had budgetary challenges. We had to furlough a lot of staff. We’ve had a lot of businesses going under like restaurants. 

We’ve put in place with the support of our great local Chamber of Commerce, led by Jill Meyer and Brendan Cull, a great program to support and give micro-grants to restaurants and bars to stay in business. A lot of them have adapted by doing a lot more delivery type of takeaway stuff. We’ve had weeks where we’ve had multiple restaurants in the city go under. We’ve seen our tax base go under. In the summer of 2020, we had all the challenges with racial justice around George Floyd and we had a lot of protests.

There were weeks where we had protests outside of city hall every day. I’m mindful of the need for some real reforms there. We had more gun violence in 2020 in Cincinnati than almost any year on record. A lot of that is related to people not being employed, not having enough to do, not having their basic needs being met. It’s more complicated than that, but that all plays into it. 

Keeping basic city operations going has been a challenge at times. We’ve seen a big increase, like a lot of places have with reports of mental health crises. I’ve seen that at work. We have seen an uptick and we have a real issue here locally with the opioid epidemic. I’m not saying this is still true, but we had more deaths for a period in 2020 related to overdoses in the city than even the COVID epidemic.

We have faced all these things and you’re triaging them all at once. Two days in the city government are quite the same. You’ve got to keep your city functioning. You’ve got to keep trash being picked up in the streets plowed. We’ve got a city workforce of about 6,000 people. I remember there was a couple of weeks in December 2020 where we had a big water main that serviced downtown that went out. We also had a leaky gas tank storage unit at a fuel station on the West side of town.

In addition to everything else, you have those issues turned at you and you’re managing them. I had to get very engaged with the neighbors around this gas leak and even data one of the lists of their local list serves and was trying to share information. 

You’re trying to keep the city running. You’re trying to make sure the budget’s balanced. You’re trying to make sure your local businesses are feeling supported, but then, you’re dealing with the pandemic. You’re dealing with stuff in your own family. My own kids have been in virtual school for the most part since the fall of 2020. There is a feeling of being a juggler juggling all these different balls and trying to keep them all in the air and not crashing down.

 AV: Part of the reason is that it’s a cool job, and you think the same. What’s in the future? Are you staying on track for city manager, or do you want to go back to Congress? What’s your vision for your career?

JJ: My main vision is to do meaningful work, hopefully, that has a positive public impact, and social good. I’ve never been one of these people that I have to get this one end all be all job. My career has taken some interesting twists and turns. Ideally, we plan to raise our family here and I want to continue to do meaningful work that makes a difference. That’s what I’m motivated by. 

I like solving problems. I like it when I get a constituent to call me up with an issue and I have to get engaged in trying to solve that problem. I get some satisfaction from that. I did like working in congress and writing legislation, but sometimes it took many years to see something you were working on in congress come to fruition – if it even ever did.

In local government, it’s much more immediate. You can work on a project and see how that benefits your neighbors or a neighborhood. I’ve enjoyed working on redevelopment projects. I can think of any number I’ve worked on, whether in the park and rec space or your more traditional economic development projects. 

To see them come to life and see people enjoy them years later, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that. It’s not just me. There’s always a team of people, much more talented than I, that work on these things. I’ve always enjoyed in government, the different people you interact with, the different people of different backgrounds that you get to work with.

There are stereotypes of bureaucrats or people in government. We’ve all heard the stereotype lazy, don’t work very hard, whatever you want to say. I find that totally off base. Some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with have been in government and in the public sector. 

I cannot believe some of the talented people that work in the city of Cincinnati and spent most of their careers here. I feel blessed to have worked with them, to be part of a team with them. Our city is much better off to have their talents applied in the public domain.

 AV: It’s a misnomer that government employees tend to be lazy. I agree with you. I haven’t seen that. There are always those people. We have those in the private sector too that are doing it to punch a clock, but it’s commendable, especially given what you guys have been through in 2020. 

All we see in the papers and the news is what’s bad, but you didn’t miss a beat with trash being picked up, with people being down, with water being delivered. All of that still happened and we’re thankful. Anything else you want to talk about?

JJ: One of the exciting things that we’ve done here in Cincinnati is we have this Office of Performance in Data Analytics, which manages a lot of the use of data. We have an open data website, but also to improve internal city processes and performance over time and make sure that we’re delivering the best services that we can. They’ve saved us a tremendous amount of money. 

I want to highlight since we stood up that office, we’ve had three incredibly talented leaders: Chad Kenney, Leigh Tami, and Nicollette Staton. I would put them up with anyone in the space and anywhere in the country that has done phenomenal work. Each director has successively moved the ball forward even more. These people are real leaders in this space.

When the pandemic hit, the city manager asked this office, under the leadership of Nicollette Staton, to suspend their normal operations and develop a whole series of new processes and tools to guide the city’s response to the pandemic. 

They began holding daily staff meetings with all city departments to generate daily response reports that tracked how we were doing in a variety of areas, in terms of responding to a pandemic. They launched multiple dashboards to share with the public and real-time rapidly evolving information with external and internal stakeholders, including one to inform residents of the pace of the spread of the pandemic and impacted city services.

They were monitoring EMS responses to COVID-19 related calls. We published a publicly available COVID-19 case tracker dashboard. This is a small team. This is four or five full-time people, but they also facilitated the creation of many internal and external processes to support city staff and the public in navigating the response and reopening, including a centralized supply ordering system. 

Unlike many places, we never got behind in terms of PPE. They developed departmental reopening strategies after the initial shock of the crisis. They designed an innovative approach to outdoor street dining applications so that we were processing those quicker so that we could get a lot of our restaurants back up and running in the summer of 2020.

This was all made possible by an extraordinary team at OPBA under Nicollette’s leadership and everyone else involved. I can’t thank them enough. They have been the core to everything that we’ve done during the pandemic. It allowed us to respond to this better than in a lot of places. 

I’m very proud of the team, for the small role I’ve played in standing up this OPBA. They have answered every call and gone above and beyond and are some of the heroes of the pandemic. It shows how data in innovation and performance management can be a central tool in the toolkit of cities as they respond to all these unexpected circumstances like once in a generation or lifetime global pandemic.

 AV: That’s fascinating to me because it doesn’t just take tools. You can buy a thing that makes a dashboard, but if you can’t supply data and you don’t have the right relationships with all of the different parties available, or that need to be involved, it doesn’t work. 

Your small team started with whiteboarding a solution, and then they had to pull in the right resources. You had to have involvement and participation from your IT department, parks and rec, and public health agencies. How did they go about coordinating all this?

JJ: It’s evolved over time. It all starts with the leadership of the mayor and the city manager, which fortunately we have had. They’ve made it a priority over many years and that’s allowed us to evolve and stand up this operation, refine it over time, and get better. 

The core is this whole idea of the stat process, where you bring leaders of every city department, you get in a room around a half-circle table, and you talk about these city services, functions, and how they can be improved. Rome isn’t built in a day. 

I’ve watched this stuff evolve over the course of many years and a whole bunch of different people have been involved. It continues to be very exciting what we’re doing here. It’s innovative and it all comes down to people. We’ve been fortunate to have some talented people that have been a part of this, that have made it what it is. I’m a minor component of that. All the credit goes to the people on the front line, and then also the city leadership that supported this.

AV: You’re very humble. It starts with the people, strategy, and effective game-playing of the business processes and how things might play out. You didn’t just jump in and say, “Mister or Miss vendor, give us a dashboard and tell us what you think.” You’ve gone at it from a real grassroots ground-up perspective. It’s commendable. John, thank you so much for your time. Was there another thing?

The pleasure has been all mine.

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