Best of California 2016: Successful Public-Sector IT Exhibits Flexibility, Adaptability

This year's winners demonstrate through their projects a willingness to adapt as circumstance dictates and use the available data to choose the most logical path forward.

by / August 11, 2016
e.Republic Inc.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Following a day of discussion on data analytics, identity access management and enterprise architecture at the 2016 California Technology Forum held Aug. 11, top technology and project leaders in the state were recognized for achievements in many of the same discussion arenas.

This year's Best of California awards were presented to 14 individuals and organizations for their achievements, ranging from project management to the best applications and citizen engagement. And while the areas of focus for each jurisdiction and agency varied, a common theme emerged among the winners. Those who do public-sector technology in California well are flexible — they demonstrate through their projects a willingness to adapt as circumstance dictates and use the available data to choose the most logical path forward.

Best Data Analytics/Business Intelligence Projects

The county of Los Angeles was presented with a best data analytics/business intelligence project award for its Human Resources Business Intelligence Project, which includes two analytics-fueled dashboards that help the county monitor applicants as they pass through the county’s selection and hiring process, and enable proactive planning as employees approach retirement.

Murtaza Masood, CIO at the Department of Human Resources, explained that the county’s policies and procedures for hiring predate many of today’s automation technologies and therefore may not be optimal. But he noted that analytics programs can bridge that gap, and it’s important to be flexible to make the most of the effort.

“When we went in, we obviously thought we had enough feedback from an empirical perspective, as well other limited studies that we knew where the problem areas might be,” Masood said. “And the project validates that, but then addresses even more areas. And you have to be open to that. If you go into a business analytics project thinking you know the answer already, then you’re approaching it wrong. You’ve got to let the data define your next step and be agile enough to respond to that.”

Government’s future lies in an increased reliance on data. As organizations learn to communicate across silos, new insights mount, and to ignore these capabilities becomes increasingly questionable.

“If we want to keep up on demand on our services, we have to deploy analytics on all areas of service delivery, HR being one of them, from my perspective, because there’s no other way of scaling your operations without knowing where the workload is coming from,” Masood said. “That’s the bottom line. If you can’t see it, you can’t measure it. If you can’t measure it, you can’t really define your SLAs [service level agreements] or your commitment to the public.”

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) also won a best data analytics/business intelligence project award for its customer service dashboards that allow the agency to monitor customer inquiries and responding agent performance. Developed in-house, the system replaces a manual-entry system that kept 200 agents busy across the state. Now free to do other things, agents can benefit from real-time data that manifests as more than a dozen performance metrics.

Making this project a success was a matter of the work style adopted during the four-month development period, said Michelle Lawson, business intelligence and reporting manager for CalPERS. The agency did not use agile development, she explained, but rather their development process was agile in the dictionary-meaning of the word.

“The key to the success of our dashboards was the agile approach that we used, working and collaborating with the business customer to ensure that the dashboards and tools we created for them did in fact meet their business need,” she said. “That back and forth conversation and that continual iteration and development of dashboards and items throughout was really important, because when we first met with them, they really didn’t know what they wanted to see, and a lot of it was coming up with creative ideas on how to display the data and moving along and continuing to tweak that based on their needs.”

The biggest challenge to this style of work was finding a developer who could bridge the technical and business jargon, Lawson said, and they had that person. But she noted that challenges like these are dwarfed by the potential that data analytics and business intelligence technologies hold for the future of government.

“We’ve gotten to the point that storing data is a thing of the past,” Lawson said. “We need to really get to the point that we’re using it. I see that a lot of the agencies are moving that direction. I’m talking to a lot of state agencies that are trying to start data analytics programs, starting business intelligence, really starting to formalize it as a more formalized IT discipline. … It’s an area that we just have to move into. The public expects it and people expect to be able to use their data, and so we have to make sure we’re giving our customers use of their data and not locking it into a system they can’t do anything with.”

Best Mobile/Wireless Project

The California State Lottery won the best mobile/wireless project award for the California Lottery Mobile Application, which recently received upgrades that make it easier for users to participate in the lottery’s 2nd Chance game. Ticket scanning capabilities replace the need to enter long codes, resulting in more participation that led to an increase in 2nd Chance revenues from $8 million to $12 million. And that, said California State Lottery CIO Chris Riesen, is more money for the state’s public schools.

“We can just scan it in and people no longer have to sit at their computer typing their codes in. It makes it a lot more convenient,” Riesen said. “Amazon has made it very convenient to buy. We spend a lot more money at Amazon these days than at other online stores in the past because they make it really easy. So we’re really focused on that player convenience because we believe our customer experience is key to keeping our players satisfied and liking the experience they have with lottery.”

In this case, he added, success came from iterating the way that many private businesses do with their products today.

“Lottery had a mobile app in the years before that didn’t necessarily do a whole lot and they didn’t really spend much time on,” Riesen explained. “What we’ve learned and what we’ve done since is we as a government entity are now in a mode of constantly releasing changes. We pay a lot of attention to the comments that the people who are downloading the application make, and we try to provide them with additional functionality or enhancements that they’re commenting on or responding to. Putting out this 2nd Chance piece and the scanning capabilities was really the first step in that direction for us.”

Demonstrated Excellence in Project Management

Winner of the demonstrated excellence in project management award was Crystal Taylor, assistant director of Central Services at the California Project Management Office. Taylor was recognized for developing standardized project management frameworks, tools and training for employees across the state, and for leading development on the California Project Management Framework, a practical guide and toolset for managing projects in California, which is showcased on a dedicated website.

Without project management, there could be no projects, and without good project management, there could be no projects like the ones honored by this year’s awards. The key to effective project management, Taylor said, lies in the balance of best practice and innovation.

“It’s about being flexible about approach in how you’re going to meet the business need,” Taylor said. “In the work I do every day, I’m trying to figure out constantly how to best prepare project managers across the state government to do their job. How can I best prepare them to be project managers and help create successful projects?”

With the wealth of information available and wide range of people consuming it, Taylor explained that her job is to present information so that project managers can be prepared, whether they’re looking to hone their abilities after decades of experience, or whether they’re new and need resources to start building a toolkit.

“People are managing projects that just hit the ground in the department, and first week on the job they … don’t know what to do,” she said. “So how do I create products and provide services that are flexible to meet those different types of needs in terms of the experience of project management practitioners and in terms of how complex their projects are?”

It’s rare to find one person who can do everything, Taylor added, which is why relying on best practices and communal knowledge is so critical, not just to the success of individual agencies, but government at large.

“I think recognizing that, as a community of people who are trying to make things better in government, you need to share what you know and take lessons from others,” Taylor said. “I think that’s something to constantly remember — that you iterate, innovate based on the best practice and lessons learned of those who have come before you. And then as you innovate and create something better, you share it so that someone coming after you can make it better from there."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.