Bridging IT and citizens

Richard Burk, director of community connections at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a man who is willing to sacrifice himself to help people in need. He started out doing that in the Peace Corps and in local government, but, in his view, there is no better place to help people than in the federal government.

"You can have a tremendous impact across the country in what you say and what you do," Burk said. "Suddenly you realize you are impacting thousands of people's lives."

Burk said his role at HUD is to be the "ignorant one," forcing the technically savvy experts at the department to make their ideas accessible to the layman. Within the Office of Community Planning and Development, his job is to bring together the information technology and programming sides of the office to deliver the best and most efficient services to citizens.

HUD's IT staff and its program offices must cooperate, especially now that the department has shrunk by more than 1,000 employees over the past two years and is undergoing a major reorganization that is affecting everything it does. Burk said IT will play an essential but limited role in improving HUD's service to the general public. "Technology will lead you there, but it won't carry you all the way," he said.

He may hold this view in part because his background had nothing to do with IT or any type of hard science. Burk earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Dayton, not out of some need to understand why people act as they do, he said, but because he could not think of anything else he wanted to do.

He joined the Peace Corps right out of college—"part of paying rent for being here," as he described it. He was sent to Uganda as a health volunteer for the Uganda Foundation for the Blind to help eradicate trachoma, a contagious eye disease.

"We got 90 days of training, then they gave us motorcycles and sent us out," he said. "Two guys, out in the middle of nowhere, trying to do some good."

Burk said his father—a doctor who has used a wheelchair since being stricken by polio at age 29—probably had a lot to do with his life's choices. Working with his patients' physical rehabilitation, the elder Burk was a living example that it was possible to overcome a disability and that anyone can improve his position in life if given the right help.

After returning from Uganda, Burk went back to school to obtain a master of arts degree in public administration from Ohio State University and had his first true taste of public service working for Columbus, Ohio. His experience at the local level made it a natural switch to the community development and planning group at HUD, which administers grant programs that help local communities. Burk has been with the group since 1974.

"Most of the [community development] programs at HUD I've either run or been involved with at some point," Burk said.

Now as HUD's director of community connections, Burk has been able to bring software programs, including the HUD 2020 mapping software, to state and local entities. He has insisted that these tools be easy to use without much training. "I've forced the techies to talk to someone that didn't come from a technical background," he said. With users as varied as city and state government officials, nonprofit organization directors and the person on the street walking up to a HUD kiosk, ease of use for HUD's programs is not just important—it is necessary, Burk said.

He views his role as one that bridges the gap between the department's IT experts and the rest of the world. "Every agency should have someone in this role," he said.

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