Raising the Bar on Local

Raising the Bar on Local

by / August 31, 1998

GT: You have said that it's not enough for local governments to become more efficient using technology; they have to become more responsive to taxpayer's needs. Why is responsiveness a critical factor today?

Di Paolo: Well, I think, to a large extent, private industry has, in a very real way, raised the bar in what we're dealing with. It's not enough to be efficient. Government tries to be more efficient with the money. We want to do more with the same dollars, which is not a bad thing. We want to turn a [service] out at a lower cost.

But, in my own personal perspective, people want government to be small, fast, seamless and largely invisible. They don't want to see us. They want things to happen.

Private industry does things 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can do that with 800 numbers; you can do it with Web sites; you can do with other things. You can go into stores 24 hours a day.

We work 8 to 5; that's not responsive. We can be efficient. We can lower our cost per unit. We can be real effective in turning out higher quality, but if we aren't meeting expectations, my perception is that it doesn't really matter.

People understand what's possible, and their expectations are higher than they have ever been in the past, and ... we, as government, are lagging behind in recognizing that and taking action to address it.

GT: How can technology help make government more responsive?

Di Paolo: I gave a technology presentation to our City Council, and it didn't have to do with bits and bytes; [it was] about strategies and so on. One of the things I said to them back in February when I did this was, "If we really believe we live in the Information Age, then the organization that's capable of acquiring, manipulating, distributing, sharing and using information really well is the one that's successful."

If you don't really use information well, you are always bumping into yourself. For example, does code enforcement know that the police visited that address yesterday? That could be an important thing to know. Have you developed the technology base that lets the business operate? And even though cities operate what are fundamentally different businesses, they are still dealing with the same customers -- some in a more integrated fashion.

You can't really meet those responsiveness expectations until you get to that point. Individual units can be more responsive, but the government overall doesn't operate that way.

Here in Fort Worth, we meet fairly regularly with the other departments. I've got two coordinators who do nothing but interface with other departments; that's their only job! They are the customer interface to our department. They have the authority within the department to draw people from different operating divisions together to address things.

We look at the customer departments, and we see them asking for things. We keep telling them, "Don't ask for things; tell us what you want to look like and act like; tell us how you want to do your job. We'll figure out what things will do that, and we'll tell you the choices of things you have. And then we'll tell you the pluses and minuses and costs of those and the different ways of going about what you want to do. And then you make the business decision for which one you want to use. Don't say you need mobile data computers! Tell me what you want to be. Tell me what you want to do. Tell me what you want to accomplish. That [mobile data computer] may be the solution, but that's not the issue."

The things we buy are the very last thing on our list we want to address. We want to get to all that other stuff up front before we worry about the devices -- laptops, MDTs -- whatever they might be. Just buying more PCs is probably good and probably productive, but it may not be the answer to the problem you are trying to address.

GT: Describe how you and your city manager, Robert Terrell, work together when it comes to technology and city policy. What sort of relationship do the two of you have in terms of those two aspects of local government?

Di Paolo: We work together more like a team than anything else. I feel perfectly free to talk to Bob about issues that he needs to be aware of or he needs to address. We try to go about it in an organized way. We don't go to him willy-nilly with this, that and the other thing. We take care of things that really don't require policy decisions. Ninety-nine percent of my interaction with Bob is at a policy level: How would you like this to happen? He knows where he wants us to go as an organization. And I'm trying to do my part to get my part of the world moving that way, and helping the business units to accomplish the missions at hand. The interactions are more along those lines than anything else.

GT: You were recently appointed chairman of the PTI Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force -- a very influential group of IT leaders in local government. What do you hope to accomplish as head of this group?

Di Paolo: First, just as a group, we need to better share our knowledge. The group, which met most recently in Fort Worth last May, has done one of everything that any government would have to do, and yet each one of us is out there reinventing the wheel. [We need] to truly share our successes and failures: what went well, what didn't go well and why. We really need to share that information across [boundaries].

Second, we have to be able to look out into the future, and that's one of the things PTI is very good at -- getting to leading-edge kinds of issues, whether it's telecommunications or a particular technology. We really need to try and look at those issues and get out in front and see where they are going and address them from our perspective, as opposed to being dragged along.

We want to also help PTI to help local governments in general become better at what they do by deploying technologies, helping cities with lowering costs. We're really trying to do all those things.

GT: Your task force is small. Why aren't more local governments taking the time to meet and discuss issues and topics related to technology and telecommunications?

Di Paolo: There haven't been a lot of forums for local governments to participate in. The year-2000 effort and the Intergovernmental Enterprise Panel (IEP) added local government as a minor participant, and yet local government is where all those year-2000 things come home to people!

The federal government and state government have a lot of forums together to do technology or to participate in those kinds of discussions. States have forums. Local governments have forums within a state, generally, but not across the nation. There really don't exist a lot of forums for that. That's one of the limiting factors we're dealing with.

The smaller the government, the more difficult it is to participate, because it takes time and travel and expertise. You may not have that expertise on staff. It may be consulting staff that provides your expertise, and you don't send them to these meetings to represent your government.

GT: I assume that you're reasonably sure about your city government's readiness for Y2K. But what about the rest of the community in Fort Worth: the businesses, schools and hospitals? How concerned are you about their preparations?

Di Paolo: Well, the government can succeed and the community can still fail!

It's a community issue and larger than any one organization -- public or private. We're concerned; we want the Fort Worth School District to succeed. We try to share everything we have with anyone we can. There aren't a lot of general-purpose forums. It tends to be a one-on-one sharing.

Since this is a once-in-a-lifetime project, there aren't a lot of organizations that have been built up, because they will be disbanded once it's over.

I think the community in general is working on it. The newspapers have been publishing articles and specifics of what different companies are doing and spending on this issue. There's a large community awareness of this issue. We have a lot of technology companies in this area that use a lot of technology, whether its Sabre Systems or American Airlines or Tandy Corp. or whoever. Those kinds of stories are published in the business section of the newspaper very frequently.

But there is no community plan. I need to be straightforward on that.

GT: Is Y2K the single biggest issue your fellow CIOs and IT directors are concerned about?

Di Paolo: We're really trying to do two or three different things. The year 2000 has clearly taken our focus, and Bob [Terrell] has explained to our City Council that there are a lot of technology projects we would like to attack, but we are going to wait until we get the year-2000 issue under our belt. So we have postponed at least one large-scale project that I can name for our court system in order to carry out year-2000 work. That's clearly a focus, because we have to get this right. And that's a matter of survival -- for the government, for the citizens, for everyone.

In another sense, we are trying to get our hands around the possibilities presented by technology. There are so many choices and so many different directions to go that it's extremely difficult to pick a path and stay on it for any extended period of time. The technologies are changing so rapidly.

We're all trying to deal with the Internet, and it's essentially overwhelming the way things are currently done. Here in Fort Worth, we are looking at client/server technology as being a Web-based client. Not the traditional client with specialized software sitting on the PC. We're calling it a Web-browser client.

Should we not just put applications on there and assume the Internet is going to be the media of delivery in the future because it's so pervasive? It is a fundamental change in the way computing has been done since the beginning. Computing has always been application and machine centric; you could add network centric.

But the Internet transcends that. It has no geography. It's placeless. It has no time or place. So it's a fundamentally different way of looking at things. So that's another issue we're trying to deal with.

We're trying to get ourselves on the same paths as the business units. That's another key area. That really depends on the local government and how the technology is organized. We have a very clear direction from the city manager here to get aligned with the business and make sure we're moving down the same path. For instance, if four different departments want to put kiosks out for one reason or another, it happens as a "kiosk" project and not as a "department" project.

We also need to look across the organization as well as down the organization. We're really trying to make the most of opportunities.

GT: On Oct. 1, your IT department in Fort Worth will operate as a business unit, without any pre-allocated funds. By shifting to this business model of operation, how has it improved the way you serve your city's IT needs?

Di Paolo: The model we are employing here is that this department operates all the shared infrastructure on behalf of the city. Departments are not free to go off and build different "shared" infrastructure. But departments are certainly free to procure other optional services. Really, what we are trying to do is become very good at the core businesses we need to be performing. We are perfectly prepared to outsource functions that are not core business functions. In that sense, we loosely define that as core business functions where we can add value, and where we can't, someone else can do that job.

Someone else may not be able to do that less expensively, but we want to keep our focus on those core things that we need to do in order to succeed. We outsource those things that are more mechanical in nature.

It's forcing us to become very good at what we do and to stop doing those things we're not good at.

GT: How does the city benefit from this model?

Di Paolo: Well, a couple things. First of all, we've had cost accountants go through and do activity-based cost studies, so we know what it costs to do everything that we do. We can compare that to the marketplace and know whether we are competitive or not, so it provides competitive measures. It isn't just some service delivery at an unknown cost; it's a choice for the customer as to whether to pay for it or not.

By focusing on the key businesses and the cross-business-unit functions, which is the view we can provide, we can really help departments work together better. We will see departments wanting to do similar things for different reasons. [Our job is to ask:] Can't that all be bundled together? For example, it would be silly to see four different kiosks for four different departments sitting at the same mall. Yet what we propose is not a central-planning project. The IT department doesn't say, "We're going to do kiosks. What kind of things would you do with a kiosk if you had one?"

Our approach is the opposite: "You seem to have an application that requires a kiosk. We note that this and the other departments also have similar applications. Can we all sit down together and develop a partnership here where we can all succeed on a global project?"

GT: A recent ICMA/PTI survey found that 71 percent of cities surveyed did not have a long-range IT plan. Why aren't local governments doing a better job of planning their IT needs?

Di Paolo: My personal opinion and observation is that local government in general tends to be very reactive and not generally active in getting out in front; that's across the board. It doesn't just deal with technology. That's my perception of local governments for the last decade.

We tend to be more reactive, which works against planning. Planning takes a lot of time and effort, a lot of work. Customer departments have to do a lot of thinking about what are the key things they want to accomplish. So departments have to be thinking ahead.

You can't have a long-range technology plan without a business plan to drive it. That doesn't mean we haven't a master city plan as much as departmental business plans to move ahead, or at least some long-range vision of where they want to go, so we can provide the tools for them to get there. We can't plan the technology without that information, and that's very difficult to come by, especially if you are an operating department that's largely reacting on a day-to-day basis. I think the environment in general works against that happening.

GT: How big an issue is job retention these days?

Di Paolo: Acquiring and retaining talent is exceptionally difficult in the government arena. Salaries tend to be lower, and we don't have stock options or profit-sharing plans. Generally, human resources (HR) is way behind in the government area as it relates to IT staffing.

I am blessed here with an HR department that does understand our problems in the HR area and has recommended to the city manager that our pay plan be radically modified, that we have signing-bonus capability, critical-skills bonuses, critical-project-team bonuses, waivers from normal hiring practices and a few other items. I am waiting on Mr. Terrell's response. If approved, the city would adopt a different pay plan for the information systems and services department.

September Table of Contents

Michael Di Paolo may have been selected to be information systems and services director for the city of Fort Worth, Texas, based on his skills and experience as a technology leader within local government, but according to his boss, Fort Worth City Manager Robert Terrell, what probably clinched it was when Di Paolo fixed Terrell's faulty PC during the job interview.

Di Paolo laughs about the incident, but to Terrell, the ability of his future IS director to swiftly resolve a nagging problem that had gone on for months epitomized the sort of action he was looking for in the person who was to lead his city's technology department. Since 1996, Di Paolo has not only kept the computers humming for the fast-growing city of Fort Worth, he has come to represent a new breed of technology leadership at the local level. Recognizing that information technology is as vital an infrastructure in today's cities as roads, bridges and utilities were 50 years ago, IT leaders such as Di Paolo are developing strategies that solidify technology's rightful role in both the day-to-day and long-term business of governance. For Di Paolo, that not only means buying good computer systems and successfully deploying them, but evangelizing to other departments the importance of technology as a shared infrastructure, and the importance of partnering within government, when necessary, to develop the best possible solution at the most affordable cost. Di Paolo began his career at Florida State University, worked for a while with the Florida Department of Labor, and eventually became information services director for the city of Fort Lauderdale before embarking on his new career in Texas. Most recently, Di Paolo's leadership qualities and vision were recognized when Public Technology Inc. (PTI) selected him as the new chairman of the Urban Consortium Telecommunications and Information Task Force. Di Paolo hopes to use his position on the task force to raise IT awareness among cities and counties, share information and launch research projects that can benefit local government. Just don't ask him to fix your computer; he's too busy right now.