Juggling Act

In this bleak budget climate, CIOs find themselves overseeing more than just technology.

by / June 3, 2004
The tight economy is forcing local governments to make do with fewer resources, so local CIOs have been asked to be masters of multitasking. Hiring freezes shorten the bench in many agencies, which forces capable staff to take on extra work.

This has made for curious combinations, but the hodgepodge of tasks taken on by many CIOs may give them a unique ability to influence decision-making in their jurisdictions.

Communicating Locally
Judi Zito, CIO of Miami-Dade County, Fla., does all usual CIO work -- and a few things more.

"I have not just the technology department reporting to me, but I have the Communications Department reporting to me too," Zito said. She oversees media relations, the county's television station, marketing, outreach efforts and special events.

The county manager aligned the Communications Department under Zito, in part, because her education was in communications. She also worked in the county's Communications Department for three years while serving as the county's e-government program manager. Zito's work in the department includes managing the county's Web portal content and Web team, she said, which was transferred from the IT Department to the Communications Department in 2000.

"Our current county manager was then our budget director and assistant county director during those years," she said. "He was familiar with my experience both in technology and communications, so when he made his staff assignments, it was a logical fit."

The convergence in communications technologies makes a CIO a good fit to oversee a communications department, she said, and Miami-Dade County is making changes to its Communications Department to give it a broader role -- including marketing and organizational branding -- and cultivate more of a corporate communications function for the department.

Part of that focus on corporate communications is molding an enterprise communication mindset of separate agencies that are accustomed to marketing themselves.

"We really hadn't expanded on the role of corporate communications as well as marketing," Zito said. "We have a marketing department in transit. We have a marketing department in aviation and so forth. We're not looking at consolidating all of those, but we're trying to say, 'From an organizational perspective, how should we be proceeding with marketing, branding and identity?'"

Communicating enterprise messages, such as the county's strategic plan, to rank and file county staff also is part of the corporate communications mindset, she said.

"How do you take a strategic plan, things like business planning and performance measurements, and help translate them into a message that a park attendant can relate to? And understand how they contribute to the overall plan of the county?" Zito said. "It's a big challenge to communicate strategic planning and the related concepts in a way the average employee can understand."

She compared the county Communications Department's evolution to similar departments in companies like IBM, which drive what those companies do on the Internet, internally and externally. Miami-Dade County's e-workplace initiative is an example of this new corporate communications function in the public sector.

"We're taking what we've done on the external side of our portal for the public and implementing something similar internally so we have a lot of services online for our employees," she said.

It's natural to presume an HR department would be responsible for educating staff about this sort of tool, Zito said, but that responsibility shifted to corporate communications offices because they understand the need to show workers the benefits of new internal services in order to build acceptance.

Public Face
In Tucson, Ariz., CIO Todd Sander also has his hands full.

"Has anybody else said they're in charge of garbage truck maintenance?" he asked. "We're trying to get somebody else to come in and do it, but I've been on it for almost a year."

After a department director retired, the city decided to consolidate and reorganize. Sander said he led the reorganization, inheriting in the process the interim director job (and garbage truck maintenance) at the city's Operations Department, so three city agencies report to him now -- the other two are the Information Technology Department and the Public Information Department.

Sander said he inherited the additional responsibilities because he's close to the city executive, and there is more flexibility in the local government CIO position -- by both design and necessity -- than at the state government level.

"This is as much a function of [the city executive's] belief in my ability to deliver as it is my title or my position," Sander said. "I get this because it needs to be done, and he believes I can do it. None of it really happened over my strenuous objections. I don't know that I'd still be here if all of this weren't going on, frankly.

"It's what keeps me interested," he continued. "It's been a great opportunity to me, both personally and professionally. If I were just the director of Information Technology, I think I would have moved on to something else a while ago."

Sander also has become Tucson's spokesman on one aspect of a $750 million bond that local voters will face this year -- a $100 million, joint public safety communications system involving Tucson, Pima County and several other jurisdictions, such as fire districts and Indian tribes.

The communication system is approximately one-seventh of the overall package, he said. Sander discusses the system in interviews with local news media because he's in a unique position.

"Since I am not the city manager, I am a little more insulated than he is from the politics of the community," he said. "I am not the police chief or fire chief, so I don't have the same pressure they do to be the champion for the guys and gals on the street. As CIO, I am the only senior-level person who has had any experience with a $100 million technology project.

"I have no counterpart in the county," he said. "They don't have a CIO. I believe that more than anyone else, I have a mix of experience and freedom to speak the unvarnished truth."

Sander's role allows him to influence public debate about technology investments. The difficulty is in talking about technology in a language the community will understand.

"The interviews I do focus on the need for a new system and what that brings to first responders and community residents," he said. "I also had to speak about relative priority compared to the other bond proposals for open space and facilities. The communication system is different from purchase of property for a park, for instance. Either the communications system will work or it won't. We can't get part way and decide something is better than nothing. In this case, that isn't true."

Part of his role is publicly voicing the city's desire for clarity and certainty about how the communications system will be scheduled, managed and implemented, Sander said.

"For us, the biggest concern has been the need to structure the whole proposal correctly so we have assurances that the project will proceed and be managed in a professional way, free of political interference later," he said.

Though Sander said he likes the added responsibilities, there's no denying they suck up his time during the day and put the CIO on a different sort of firing line.

"Every day is a show up and see what happens sort of day," he said. "If I come in the morning, open the newspaper and find out the editors have taken a particular position, soon after that, the mayor and council members start calling.

"I'm very much at the mercy of the political forces in the community in how I spend my time," Sander said. "I spend a fair bit of my time thinking through the political implications of things from a city manager/staff side. We're officially and technically not supposed to be political, but everybody knows that's not how it works. City managers are a significant part of the political process, so it's important to be aware of and connected to the positions of the elected officials."

Overdue Books
In Virginia Beach, Va., CIO David Sullivan oversees three city departments, one of which is the city's technology organization. Like Sander and Zito, Sullivan runs the city's communications department, but also heads the city's public library with a staff of 241, a $14.6 million operating budget and a $22 million capital program.

Sullivan said he's had that responsibility since 1999 after a reorganization of the city's administrative functions.

"We have a very strong library system," he said. "Our library director has been here for a number of years, and she's recognized around the state as outstanding. We felt the [library] profession is information managers. That's what they do, and that's what they train to do.

"We wanted to use that expertise, and we've been able to do a lot with both the IT folks reporting to me and the library reporting to me," he continued. "We've been able to create a lot of crossovers that wouldn't have happened otherwise."

Sullivan makes monthly visits to library branches to meet with staff members and area librarians that manage the branches to get an idea of how services are delivered, and collect complaints and suggestions from volunteer staff and library users. The visits aren't necessarily about what sort of technology needs the libraries face.

"Right now, we're doing an active directory migration, and we actually implemented the first one in the new library we opened," he said. "They've got a whole new facility, plus new types of computers, plus a whole new infrastructure. That particular visit, we talked more about technology.

"Most of the time when I go, it's more about operational issues and services," Sullivan said. "When I talk to the employees, they want to talk about benefits, salaries, promotional issues and those kinds of things. They see me as the city manager's extension coming out there. I'm corporate management, and I really want them to talk about the bigger things, not just technology. I want to hear about their business needs."

Cathy of All Trades
When CIO Catherine Maras O'Leary took over the phone system in Cook County, Ill., the Department of Central Services was folded into her Bureau of Information Technology and Automation.

As a result, she's responsible for a slew of nontechnology tasks, all the way down to working with a talented upholsterer on "new" chairs for the members of the County Council, she said.

Maras O'Leary runs a warehouse that handles all county records and salvage. So if a worker wants to dispose of his or her chair, it's taken off the fixed asset rolls and inventory tagged. If the county can't fix it, the Department of Central Services solicits three bids from junk dealers to haul the chair away. If the chair can be salvaged, Maras O'Leary sends it to a reupholsterer, then ships it to another worker. In fact, the CIO sits in a refurbished judge's chair.

These duties became painful in 2003 when Maras O'Leary's office dealt with the aftermath of a deadly fire. The fire broke out on the 12th floor of the 35-story Cook County Administration Building in downtown Chicago, wiping out the entire floor.

The building housed many county government agencies, including the Sheriff's Office and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.

"After the fire, my area [located on the building's 7th floor] became the epicenter," she said, adding that her deputy director was injured in the fire. "My staff and I worked over the whole weekend because we had 2,000 people we had to find new homes for. Everyone was very emotional, but we had to keep our heads about us because we had to keep moving forward to keep county government operating the following Monday morning."

Maras O'Leary took over the county's mail after the fire, setting up a temporary mailing station on her floor for agencies to come collect their mail. She found desks, chairs, telephones and office supplies for displaced employees. Maras O'Leary and her technicians also configured the county's phone switch to route calls to employees at emergency locations. And she found cubicles and cubbyholes for displaced employees to do their work.

"We didn't change any of our phone numbers, so we had people 16 miles away in one of our courthouses with downtown phone numbers because we didn't want anyone to call and not get the agency," she said. "I only had one phone for every two to three people."

Maras O'Leary knew a laundry list of items from the old Cook County Hospital were about to go to salvage -- desks, chairs and related office paraphernalia. She also tapped a county sheriff's program called "Swap," which lets people who can't afford to pay traffic fines work for the county in lieu of payment. Swap program participants moved the old hospital equipment to the Cook County Administration building.

"I try to think of us as BASF ... no one knows who we are, but we put things together," she said, speaking of public-sector technologists. "We know all the pieces to the puzzle."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor