The podcast Guiding Growth: Conversations with Community Leaders from the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce and event and meeting venue Modern Moments explores the human journey of leaders. There are stories of humility, triumph, roadblocks, and lessons learned. The podcast is now sponsored by the Gilbert Independent and yourvalley.net. This partial transcript of the most recent podcast with Dana Berchman has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dana Berchman is the chief digital officer in Gilbert, where she manages all internal and external communications, public relations, marketing and digital government initiatives, government innovation, and open data and storytelling efforts. She leads a digital team responsible for developing policies on social media, digital communications, web initiatives, and other tools to better serve the public. Berchman created Gilbert’s award-winning Office of Digital Government, named the “Civic Engagement Program of the Year” by Smart Cities Dive and the recipient of the “Sharman Stein Award for Storytelling Changemakers".
Previously, she spent eight years working in New York City as a producer and director at MTV and a producer and writer for Andrea Mitchell at MSNBC. Berchman earned her bachelor's degree in political science from Arizona State University and her master's degree in journalism and public affairs from American University.
Growing up in Gilbert, talk about your childhood. What that looked like for you. I moved to Gilbert (in junior high school) and it changed my whole life. I went to Mesquite Junior High and then Gilbert High School where I had an amazing experience as a tiger and had a teacher pluck me out of a ninth grade class to run for student council, encouraged me to get involved in the school and have leadership roles and really formed my love for politics and led me to choosing political science as my undergraduate degree. So growing up in Gilbert was a wonderful experience for me.
Now your parents were both teachers? How does that influence you? I think it's the love for public service, you know, never doing anything for a paycheck, but really doing the work because you're so passionate about it. My dad played professional baseball and, you know, I've had big jobs in New York City, and you can have a huge job and make a lot of money and not be fulfilled.
And so it's really about service to others, and it's why I love my current job more than anything in the world. And why at any point I know that I can't lose that public service aspect. And it was something that was taught really.
(About her career) Mostly I like to make other people look good. I like to set other people up for success. It's like the greatest joy of my career, whether it's an elected official, it's a mayor, it's my boss, it's my anchor, it's the politician I'm working for — making other people look their best, sound great and show up that way is like, that's my jam right there.
I love being behind the scenes. I love writing. … Even when I deal with work now with our police chief, you know, I say, ‘we're here to make you look good, to make you sound good, to set you up for success, to talk to the community the way you would.’ And they're like, ‘oh, ok. I get this.’ It's just a different way of thinking.
After graduate school I had to decide. I had a job offer actually in El Paso, Texas, to be on camera or I could go behind the scenes and make a move to New York, which is what I wanted to do. And so I did, and my best friend, his roommate at the time worked at MTV, and I moved to New York. And within two weeks I had a job at MTV and had met my future husband, who sat cubicle to cubicle across from me, and I never really looked back from there.
(After returning to Arizona) I'd had my second daughter, and I was on maternity leave, and (my mother) brought the paper over and laid it down on my lap and said, ‘look at this job in Gilbert. This job looks like perfect for you.’ And it said, town of Gilbert to create Chief Digital Officer. I'm like, what? So I read through it and I was like, ‘this job sounds like it's made for me.’ It's not a traditional comms person. It's all the things that I used to do in my previous jobs, which was get old school reporters like Andrea Mitchell to think about moving beyond a pen and paper and using blogging and social media to connect with audiences, right?
This is my dream job and honestly, it has been since the day I started. And so the last 11 years, believe it or not, I've been working in the government space. And like I said, you wouldn't imagine that after a big fancy life and job in New York that you'd think that's your favorite job. But it really, truly is because it's that perfect melding of all the things, right? The public service piece where I grew up, giving back to the community, amplifying voices that don't get to get heard, meeting people where they are, telling stories of people who don't have a chance to have their story told.
That's a brand new position that you jumped into as well. So you probably had a lot of leg work to get going on that one, right? I got to build it. I love that creation space. So to start with nothing was really key.
I think about our residents every day. They're 34. How do they want to interact with their city? How do they want to pay a bill? How do they want to sign up for a class? How do they want to receive their information on social media? Like that's how we should be delivering service. And a lot of times in these government spaces, you have people who have been doing jobs for a long time. It's like they need to evolve their skill sets, and I have to challenge myself to do this too. Having young kids helps. But you know, if there's a new social media platform tomorrow that our residents are on, we need to be on it. We need to meet them there. And I don't know why people think government is an exception to the way the world works. It's not, and neither is Gilbert. We are evolving as the world is.
Let's go 10 years from now. What does a decade from now look like for you? I see my department evolving. I've gone from everything from Office of Communications, to Office of Digital Government, to Office of Civic Engagement.
Let other people come in, invite them in and let them tell you what they think about what you're doing. Not people that show up at council meetings or, I say, the pitchfork people that have a grievance, (but) the average person who's busy living their lives. What do they really think because they do care about a lot of these issues, whether it's parks or their school in the future. We know that everyone is passionate about these same things, but we don't often create spaces.