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4 Hurdles Facing Local Government Techies (And What to do About Them)

Public-sector technologists discussed the ins and outs of thriving in the government space during Laserfiche Empower.

by / February 13, 2017
Long Beach CIO Bryan Sastokas (center) discusses the challenges and opportunities facing the public sector with Franklin County, Pa.'s Ed Yonker (left) and Collin County, Texas' Tim Nolan at the 2017 Laserfiche Empower conference in Long Beach, Calif., Feb. 8. Government Technology

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Local government technology officials gathered to discuss the myriad challenges and opportunities facing their respective organizations during the Laserfiche Empower conference Feb. 8.

The session, hosted by e.Republic* Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler, broached some of the more pressing topics facing the public sector — namely how to bring new blood into the government fold, taking risks and getting the most out of engagements with the public and elected officials.

While technology was the main underpinning of the roughly hourlong panel discussion, speakers also stepped outside the IT box and focused on complementary issues as well.  

Innovating within the Government Space

As Tim Nolan, senior applications manager with Collin County, Texas, explained, innovation in government has developed into more than just an added bonus to end-users — innovation has become an expectation.

Rapid growth and greater reliance on devices and connectivity have put pressure on the county government to provide new services at a faster rate. “They expect this level of technology, anything less would be complaints,” he said.

Where the drive to push new technologies and features poses great opportunity for a tech-savvy organization, it poses very real challenges for those struggling to negotiate between the way things have been done and process evolution. These changes often garner resistance from those comfortable with the way things are.

In rural Franklin County, Pa., Application Software Manager Ed Yonker said changing the culture of a well established organization is easier said than done. “As far as that culture, for us to innovate, basically it’s a mindset. It’s hard to change our processes internally. We’ve got to fight that internal battle trying to get that done,” Yonker explained.

Despite the challenge before them, Yonker said persistence has helped his organization to make inroads, though, he admitted, the changes have been slow.

Making Engagements Count

One of the primary goals for the city of Long Beach has been fostering better relationships with the public and leadership around technology. 

Long Beach CIO Bryan Sastokas told attendees that framing the conversation around economic development, or how it can support other key initiatives outside of IT, can be a useful tactic when gathering support and engaging with stakeholders.

During efforts to build the city’s open data program and policy, Sastokas said the goal was to connect directly with the public and outline the information they hoped to draw on. “We went out to the community and said, ‘What is it that you want? How do you want that data? What are you looking for? What should that policy be?’”

The creation of the policy was ultimately opened to the public for edits and additions. “That physical engagement, that ability to have them feel that they crafted something that then we took up to our commission and our council, is something that I think everyone in TID [the Technology and Innovation Department] is excited for because normally you just have them tell you what they think you need.”

Though this route will open the doors to improved transparency in government service delivery, Sastokas warned that it will also mean hearing other issues as well — not all of which will be pleasant.

“It’s not easy either. When you go out asking for something from your community, get ready to hear a bunch of things you probably can’t deliver on, or don’t know if you want to deliver on, because everyone has their own opinion.”

Embracing Risk

When it comes to taking the plunge into new waters, panelists made the argument that taking the risk can actually help the cause of an organization, rather than setting it back.

As Nolan explained, a measured risk can be just what elected officials need to turn their attention to the IT aspects of government. He said the competitive nature of many elected officials can also be leveraged for organizational benefit. “The competitive nature of a lot of these elected officials actually makes it a lot easier for us to be innovative because they are trying to outdo each other,” Nolan said.

The result can be a veritable race for innovation, where elected officials, dependent on organizational successes for re-election, get behind initiatives that improve constituent services in some new way.

As Sastokas sees it, risk is synonymous with failing, but also innovating. “My argument is if you are going to fail, fail fast. Fail fast, get it over with and move along. You can’t be innovative without failing.”

Knowing the overall organizational goal is key to approaching any mission, Sastokas said, whether it’s addressing homelessness, education or any other issue. “Whatever those topics are, keep that as your focus and just keep trying.”

Drawing in New Blood

When discussing the challenges facing local government, the panelists said there are a number of considerations that stretched from enterprise security to replacing the institutional knowledge that leaves an organization with each retirement.

The so-called “silver tsunami” has forced many IT shops to rethink how they approach recruiting. And the effort is not as simple as posting an opening on popular employment websites. Sastokas explained that he sees recruiting millennials as an integral part of a larger cultural shift to government. 

“You have to look at your department, your technologies, your information and how that is going to shift and change over time to not have it all in one basket,” he said.

This requires employers to look beyond the benefits and stability that attracted previous generations to public service. As the Long Beach CIO explained, the millennial workforce is less interested in tenure and more focused on making a difference and working in an environment they identify with. 

“It’s really looking at that and trying to revamp the workplace, making it exciting, being more open, being more progressive in the way we do our jobs," Sastokas said. "That’s something that I think is the biggest challenge for us in IT in government.”

In Collin County, Nolan said his organization hasn’t been as focused on attracting millennials as it has on maintaining the core principles of public service. Rather than altering the course or ideals of the enterprise, Nolan said his staff focuses on recruiting people who want to be there. 

“In a way, [it’s] almost a litmus test. If that’s not your desire, then we are really not that interested. We have a position, if this is where you want to serve, give back to your community, we have an opportunity to do so,” he said. “At least at this moment, we haven’t found ourselves marketing too much trying to change our environment. We have just been saying this is what we are, and if this is what you are, then come and join us.”

*Editor’s Note: e.Republic is the parent company of Government Technology. 

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.