The Tide Turns at Virginia Beach

For a handful of IT chiefs, the role of CIO means having more than one job. It's an opportunity for some and a distraction for others.

by / August 2, 2005
Stand on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach, Va., and you can see the name of virtually every national hotel chain emblazoned on the modern, high-rise towers that appear to be jostling for space along the prized real estate that faces the sand and sea. But on the other side of Atlantic Avenue stand the more modest motels and eateries that have existed along the beachfront for decades. These independent establishments have seen better days and now find themselves cut off from the beach by the bigger, better financed chains.

The two views along the avenue reflect the old and new of Virginia Beach. Once a modest seaside town with mom-and-pop motels and restaurants, the city has boomed in recent decades to become the largest in Virginia, drawing millions of tourists to its shores during the hot summer months.

Along with the rapid population growth, Virginia Beach city government has also expanded. And like the fancy, modern hotels that hug Atlantic Avenue, the city's operations and service delivery have modernized, becoming increasingly digital and more progressive. In addition to those attributes, Virginia Beach also carries the burden of limitations. City Manager Jim Spore describes the city as a jurisdiction blessed by its location next to the ocean and a great port, making it an attractive place to live. "At the same time," said Spore, "we face increasing pressures from our citizens to deliver more services but without any tax increases to pay for it."

For that key reason, Spore has made technology central to the city's services and operations. The effort has paid off. In 2004, Virginia Beach was ranked No. 1 in the Center for Digital Government's annual Digital Cities Survey for its robust infrastructure, the number of enterprise applications and most importantly, for the quality and value of its online services. All of this was accomplished while the city's IT funding and number of workers assigned to technology projects has either remained stable or declined, according to Spore.

He attributes the success to the fact that responsibility, governance and oversight of IT has been restructured in Virginia Beach. "A number of years ago, we created the role of CIO with the goal of making that position one of just three chief officers in the city reporting directly to me," explained Spore. "I wanted the CIO position to have the scope to govern IT across the entire organization, and to translate the vision of technology into a coordinated strategy for the city."

The man who took on the CIO role is a 30-year veteran of Virginia Beach. David Sullivan began his career in public service working in the city's planning department. Since then he has held various positions, including information systems coordinator and IT director until taking the CIO title in 1999.

Having spent several years running technology from within the city's IT department, Sullivan, who has since left the position, said creation of the CIO role and its elevation into the city manager's office improved things dramatically. "By moving my job out of IT and into the city manager's office, I had direct access to the decision-making process," he said. "No longer could decisions be made that I didn't know about, and it allowed me to communicate IT to other department chiefs, as well as give IT a voice at the city council level."

In addition to greater access and input on decision-making, Sullivan's position of CIO also took on other responsibilities, including public communications/media relations and public libraries. While it's not unusual for government CIOs to assume duties not related to IT, it's still the exception rather than the rule.

Hardly any state CIO takes on dual roles in an official capacity. A couple of exceptions include Virginia's secretary of technology, who has economic development responsibilities along with IT. Other state CIOs have been known to accompany their governors on trade junkets from time to time, and in South Dakota, the state CIO is in charge of public broadcasting.

CIOs of large cities and counties rarely split their time. Again, there are always exceptions, such as New York City CIO Gino Menchini, who controls the city's extensive cable TV network. But it's down at the mid-tier jurisdictions where it's more likely to see IT chiefs who wear more than one hat on the job. Michael Armstrong, for example, former CIO of Des Moines, Iowa, was responsible for finance and human resources. Todd Sander, former CIO of Tucson, Ariz., ran the general services department and public communications, as well as IT for the city. Brian Moura, once perhaps the geekiest of CIOs in local government and now the assistant city manager for San Carlos, Calif., has held so many non-IT positions, it's easy to lose count.

The Rise of the Deputy CIO
Not surprisingly, CIOs with dual roles find themselves involved with non-technology issues while wearing two hats. To keep technology on an even keel, they often have a chief technology officer or an equivalent who manages day-to-day IT operations. For Sander, it was his deputy who took on more and more of Tucson's IT management responsibilities. David Molchany, CIO for Fairfax County, Va., is responsible for IT; public libraries; compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act; and is involved with public affairs and economic development. He also has an IT director who reports directly to him.

In Virginia Beach, Gwen Cowart, director of communications and information technology, has absorbed many of Sullivan's previous duties. Besides IT, Cowart also directs information security, telephony, 911 and the city's public safety radio system. Overall she manages a budget of $34 million and a staff of 286 -- out of a city budget of $1.6 billion and more than 6,000 employees, which includes education.

Under Sullivan's direction, Cowart has steadily shifted the city's IT focus away from departmental solutions and toward enterprise applications that are approved and deployed based on business needs. "There's a much greater emphasis on enterprise strategies," she said. "We try to avoid building separate, mid-level projects. The goal is to minimize complexity and centralize our infrastructure."

Evidence of that new strategy can be found in an $11 million project that is replacing a series of legacy applications associated with tax, property assessment and real-estate assessment with one enterprise system. In July, the city embarked on a project to replace its mainframe for HR and payroll with an Oracle ERP system that will, in the final phase, run in a hosted environment. Virginia Beach has already begun using application service providers to host solutions for public utilities.

The shift toward shared IT services and hosted applications is all part of the city's enterprise vision, driven by business needs and based on best use of staff resources. For example, the transition toward hosted solutions occurred when it became clear that valuable IT staff were spending an inordinate amount of time patching and maintaining legacy systems. "We'd rather have them doing development than maintenance," explained Cowart.

Another area where Sullivan and Cowart have done well is e-government. "We e-enable everything that makes sense to be e-enabled," explained Sullivan. "Our strategy is to make new applications e-enabled when they come online, rather than run parallel systems. As a result, we introduce between four and six new e-government services per year."

By making the right choices, paying attention to details and executing things well, Virginia Beach has an enviable adoption rate for its online services. "E-government has really been embraced here with usage extremely high: nearly 5 million online visitors last year," said Sullivan, who added that there is no way the city's staff could have responded to all the enquiries if those visitors had called instead.

And it's not just the usual bits and pieces of information with the odd transaction thrown in. For example, the city's Parks and Recreation Department offers online registration for summer classes, camps and child-care services. So popular is the Web-based service that when these services first went online, the department took in $300,000 in bookings within four hours. Today, nearly 50 percent of all summer camp bookings are conducted online.

But not all technology-related projects have gone smoothly. Sullivan was still smarting from a proposed 311 project that went awry. The original goal was to reduce the costs of responding to citizen complaints and questions while boosting city services by using a centralized call center. But the project collapsed when larger city departments with their own established call centers balked at the idea, indicating that the IT department had no track record running a centralized call center.

Having learned from the mistake, Sullivan regrouped and expanded the city's 911 service, which is run by Cowart, to take on more non-emergency call handling. Once IT staff showed the rest of the city they had the know-how to run a hotline, the 311 project returned to the front burner. Cowart also decided to avoid the touchy issue of moving employees from various departments into a single call center, and has laid down plans to create a virtual center using CRM on the front end and automated call distribution software to manage the calls while allowing employees to stay with their current departments.

Duties That Eat Time
Just as the use of technology in Virginia Beach government reached new heights, Sullivan realized his IT-related role was shrinking. More and more, he spent his time wrestling with broader city government issues. In 2003, the state moved the trial of sniper and serial killer John Allen Muhammed to the Virginia Beach courts, and Sullivan found himself responsible for coordinating relations with the media horde who descended on the city to cover the court proceedings. That event consumed even more of his time and further distanced him from IT issues.

It reached a point that when meetings involving technology came up, Sullivan sometimes found himself on the sidelines, not always able to lead because his knowledge hadn't kept up with the industry's fast-paced change.

Sullivan accepted the fact that the role of CIO could no longer stay solely within technology if it was to help change how government functions in today's digital age.
Technology has always been his passion, and the dual duties were diluting his IT knowledge, so in May of this year, Sullivan announced his resignation. He left in July to work as CIO for the Hampton Roads Transit Agency, where his responsibilities will be exclusively technology.

"I wanted to get my hands back into technology with the ultimate goal of teaching technology at the college level," he explained. "Technology moves so fast and has become so complex, and my job as CIO for the city moved me away from the field I know best."

Just about every CIO in local government agrees that his or her role must evolve from the narrow scope of IT to include executive decision-making at the enterprise level. When CIOs work directly with the city manager, governor or cabinet secretary, they find it easier to align IT with the business of government because they can see where the organization is headed, said Armstrong. "That way, we can play a role in shaping the organization."

Sander said the elevated CIO role in Tucson allowed him to see across city government. "Getting the title of CIO was a way for me to get a seat at the table of general business of government. I liked that because I'm not a technologist in a government role, but a government person who likes technology." Sander added that when he had to run the city's water department, he brought his IT knowledge to the table when it came time to decide how to upgrade a critical information system for the department.

Does the job of running two or more departments, some with unrelated duties, impact the skills and abilities of a CIO? Armstrong takes a philosophical view of the situation. "I do miss dealing with IT on a daily basis, but my career is about letting go and moving on." Armstrong found himself facing that situation now with the news that his boss, City Manager Eric Anderson, will be leaving Des Moines to become city manager of Tacoma, Wash.

While many CIOs at large federal agencies, state governments, big cities and counties may never have to wrestle with dual responsibilities, it does resonate elsewhere. Just where is the tipping point between having broad city management responsibilities, and having too many unrelated duties that dilute the skill and experience of the jurisdiction's most knowledgeable IT leader?

Some worry that CIOs' efforts to reduce any outside duties while clinging to all IT concerns will continue to sap the position of its potential to enact change and relegate its importance. For David Sullivan, his passion for technology proved too strong to ignore. The good news is that he plans to pass on his knowledge about technology, leadership and government to his students, once he takes on the mantle of college professor in the future. Perhaps moving on, as Armstrong said, is good after all.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.