Beth Niblock started work as Detroit’s CIO in February 2014, less than a year after the city underwent the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
She came to Detroit after having spent nearly 11 years in city government in Louisville, Ky., and when she arrived, Niblock found that the technology and innovation landscape within city hall largely reflected the ongoing financial tumult and struggles. Looking back recently, Niblock recalled the circumstances she and her team faced in those days.
“To put it all perspective, when I came in with the bankruptcy, a majority of the computers were running Windows XP or older, our network was really bad, and so it was almost a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Niblock said. “We had to build a robust and resilient network; we replaced every PC; and, we standardized images. We couldn’t remotely manage PCs; we couldn’t remotely manage printers. So, we put in a modern infrastructure to allow people to communicate within the city, because even that was a real issue.”
During the bankruptcy, the federal government appointed an emergency manager, who allowed a handful of city agencies to reorganize, one of which was the Department of Information Technology. That enabled Niblock to centralize the IT structure, and to transition the department from a scant workforce that relied heavily on contractors to an expanded team made up mostly of full-time employees.
Some of the earliest projects for Niblock and the expanded IT team revolved around making sure basic IT in the city was standardized, functional, modern and efficient. Once that was finished, her team went to work upgrading their newly standardized systems and investing in real improvements, both in terms of internal operations and citizen-facing services. As CIOs within municipal government so often do, Niblock set about trying to use IT to foster procedural improvements that would save both constituents and public servants time, leading to more convenient services for residents and less costly ones for government.
Today, Detroit has a number of pilot programs underway for new initiatives as well as some forthcoming projects. Many have to do with public safety or public transit. For example, Mayor Mike Duggan has made it a priority to improve bus service and on-time performance. Ongoing upgrades to the bus fleet are taking place, and that includes everything from dispatching to onboard passenger counts, as well as a new app that citizens can use to navigate bus routes. Detroit is also looking to hire a new director for emerging technologies.
One measure of Detroit's progress is the growing list of new IT projects: a new responsive website capable of processing online payments, a $12 million real-time crime monitoring system for the police, the new computer dispatch infrastructure for emergency responders and an open-by-default data policy.
But a better measure of progress is, perhaps, to look into the hallway right outside Niblock’s office. There is a row of chairs out there where residents who have to pay certain fees had to wait to have a hearing with a public servant who could help them through the process. Niblock remembers that when she first arrived, every seat in the hall would be filled with those waiting, and the line would even expand past that. Part of the work that her team has done involved making it possible for citizens to pay those same fees online from their home computers or mobile devices.
“It’s hearing day today,” Niblock said, “and there’s literally nobody in the chairs. Making it easier and more convenient like this for residents is something that we’re really striving for.”
There is still much work to be done, but technologists in Detroit, Niblock said, can also take comfort in looking at how far they’ve come.
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.