In September 2005, I became the city of Riverside's first CIO. It was one of those opportunities so few people in this business ever get - to do an important job in a place that is important to me. Riverside is where I was born and raised, where my wife and I chose to raise our family and where we always wanted to stay.
What I didn't realize was how quickly we could accomplish the kind of overhaul that fundamentally improves a city - both in City Hall and out on the streets - without adding a cent to the city budget.
Located roughly 60 miles east of Los Angeles, Riverside has always been a place with plans. It has a rich history, having led California's lucrative explosion into the citrus industry a century ago and becoming at one time a premier spot in the country for the wealthy to live and play.
Today the city features a diversity of population nobody could've predicted in Riverside's heyday when presidents and movie stars hung out at the famous Mission.
Now Riverside is mostly Hispanic, but it also includes black, white, Japanese and Korean citizens who lend the city its cultural richness that cities often strive for. Then there are the 40,000 college students who call Riverside home, a group divided among four nearby universities. A big part of my job is helping them see Riverside not just as a college stopover, but as a place to call home once they've graduated.
The formation of the city's independent High Technology Task Force and its September 2004 recommendation to hire a CIO were strong signs that City Hall was ready to take the major steps needed to harness all that potential. And when I arrived a year later, it was clear that readiness would be tested.
A Whole New IT Plan
I quickly formed a vision for my first three years on the job: Root out inefficiencies and waste that were holding the city back and streamline the organization accordingly; identify and put in place the necessary management team to do that; and finally, start aggressively implementing the new ideas, technology and programs that would've been impossible before.
Two major things would aid the process. One was being the first person ever to hold my job. With no predecessors to be compared to, and no previous barriers to break down, it's easier to implement drastic change. And with my hiring, the ball was already rolling.
The second element was our Executive Technology Committee, which consists of the city manager and 12 department heads. I lay out the strategy, and they ultimately approve the moves or make alternative suggestions. Everybody plays a role, and everybody has stayed willing to listen to each other.
That willingness was crucial as we embarked on our citywide IT renovation.
One big problem was that the IT department was outsourced to an independent contractor. Worse, the contract manager was also acting as the city IT department head. The arrangement had been in place for eight years, but this clear conflict of interest made for technology decisions not always in the city's best interests. In addition, technology purchases were made by the city's individual departments - if they saw something they believed filled a need, they bought it. Central oversight and coordination were sorely lacking.
Not surprisingly, this structure made for too much waste and too little IT cohesiveness. Worse than the citywide inefficiency, however, was the lack of any long-term vision for the future. The city needed a whole new IT plan.
Calling the Shots
Among my first moves was to bring in four city employees - experienced managers who would provide
oversight and direction to the contract staff. I can't overstate the importance of having the right managers with the right skill sets, and a collective understanding of their respective roles and expectations.
Next we needed to deal with the old, badly bloated $6.7 million IT contract with that outside contractor. Make no mistake, the contract had brought some talented people to Riverside and we wanted them to stay, but we needed City Hall calling the shots, not the contractor.
With the right to go back out to bid for a whole new IT contract, we had all the leverage we needed to renegotiate with the contractor we already had. Rather than let that happen, the company agreed to reduce the price of the existing contract by $1.2 million - overhead that I considered gouging - and reduced the length of that contract from 10 years to one.
Next we went after the software they installed. We eliminated the redundant or unnecessary software purchases - spending decisions the contractor had previously controlled while simultaneously profiting from them - but retained the services we continue to be very happy with. We are currently negotiating a second year.
Departments also had to adjust to a centralized procurement system, with all purchases of new technology going through our revamped IT department. One consequence of that change was additional staff turnover, since comprehensive background checks were needed to clear employees for access to servers with sensitive information, particularly police data. Out of a 65-member staff - almost all contract workers - we lost roughly 20 percent.
So while there may have been inevitable frustrations or ruffled feathers, they were held to a minimum because we had a clear picture and had laid out an alternative vision at the very outset. Throw in a committee approach that gives everyone a voice, and people were ultimately willing to give change a chance. In the end, the worst case of hurt feelings was our contractor, who sacrificed a little money to keep our business.
All those changes - the slashing of the contract, the reduction on the server side and the cancellation of a number of unnecessary hardware procurements and other scheduled projects - netted $4 million to pump new IT hardware and software into streamlining city operations. A lot of the money was invested in changes the average citizen wouldn't see, like going from 270 servers in our computer network to 75 using VMware and eliminating dozens of servers we no longer needed.
Our e-mail environment has also been replaced, going from a slew of independent directories to a single, much more manageable directory. Security, too, was enhanced, with more robust anti-spam and antivirus software and remote employee desktop access that requires both a password and an electronic token.
Some other moves are more high profile. We've just started the process of blanketing the entire city with free Wi-Fi, and in November, we began providing free, refurbished PCs to households with incomes under $45,000. Recipients are required to take an eight- to 10-hour training course in Riverside community centers, and classes are filled through the end of May. Roughly 380 computers have gone out so far, just the beginning of what we hope will be 30,000 units over five years.
Funding comes from grants and donations through a nonprofit called Smart Riverside - of which I am executive director - with refurbishment done by reformed gang members trained through Project Bridge. The only cost to the city is training instructors, but the profit is a Riverside population whose access to the life-changing advantages of technology isn't as restricted by income or education.
Next, we needed a software package to streamline City Hall's paperwork management needs. City Hall was already very happy with the Laserfiche software it was using for document
storage and retrieval purposes, so we looked into a suite of other software packages the company offers specifically for streamlining government operations.
Key among those packages is the Agenda Manager software we purchased, which cut the time it took to put together City Council's meeting agenda by an average of three to four weeks. The software allowed department heads to post their proposed agenda items electronically and respond to others' instantly. No more paper copies of proposed agenda items being sorted into department managers' mailboxes, leaving the city clerk to wait weeks for replies.
It's a prime example of how the right piece of software applied the right way can have a real, tangible impact. It's not simply techs talking in a room full of servers, but actual progress is getting to Riverside streets and homes.
All the public documents stored on Laserfiche are now also available via the city Web site, meaning people make considerably fewer time-consuming trips to city offices for everyday documents or information. It's part of the reason why Riverside succeeded in reaching the Center for Digital Government's Best of the Web top 10 for cities with populations over 250,000.
And we learned recently just how much residents are taking advantage of the improved accessibility. A brief Internet outage came during a City Council meeting, and we must have fielded 100 phone calls from people looking for the agenda.
It's a small but welcome form of encouragement as we go forward. There are, after all, almost 100 projects on the table. Based on our ahead-of-schedule pace so far, there's no reason we can't complete them within another three years.
I continue to learn - despite the early contract issue, the superior speed with which an outside contractor can help a government make changes has been a refreshing revelation to me - and we collectively continue to follow our first year's model of cost controls and centralization.
Steve Reneker is the CIO for Riverside, California