Embracing a New Role

While David Molchany is no longer Fairfax County's CIO, that hasn't diminished his role as lead integrator of IT and government.

by / February 2, 2007
Live by video feed, David J. Molchany, a Fairfax County, Va., government official, shares advice with eager students from unlikely places -- Kazakhstan, the Philippines, the World Bank, the U.S. Department of State, Bulgaria and Thailand. At 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Molchany fields questions from New Zealanders who have watched his prerecorded lecture on creating a knowledge-based economy. In New Zealand, it's 8:30 a.m. the following day.

Molchany described to the audience how governments can align strategy with efficiency and customer needs. "I could watch their reactions to what I was saying," he later said. "It was an amazing experience -- like witnessing the disappearing fourth wall."

The U.S. federal government and local governments, here and abroad, have taken note of Fairfax County's ongoing success with providing digital services to residents. As Deputy County Executive/Information, Molchany has been central to integrating county services and government by using IT and interdepartmental collaboration.

New Title, Same Job
Molchany is one of few public-sector CIOs to hold the position of deputy county executive. He oversees or interacts with multiple departments, programs and committees, which are information- and/or technology-related. Beginning in 2006, however, Molchany dropped the CIO title.

"My title has changed but my job has not," he said. "I am not just the IT guy anymore." The rationale behind changing the title was to more accurately represent the breadth of a CIO's duties. "A lot of people are looking at the CIO title and thinking about what it represents and how it can change," he said. This jack-of-all-trades position and the structure of Fairfax County's government may be a model for the direction some governments are beginning to take with regard to CIO and chief technology officer (CTO) roles and definitions.

In Fairfax, a wealthy northern Virginia county that occupies a major portion of the metropolitan Washington, D.C., region, the CIO role was incorporated into one of four deputy county executive positions. All deputies report to the county executive and follow strategies set by the county board of supervisors. Molchany, who directs the IT department and CTO Wanda Gibson, also leads the county public library system, the Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection, and the county's compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In addition, he works with the Office of Public Affairs and the Economic Development Authority.

Molchany sits on approximately 10 committees and task forces, including the IT Policy and Advisory Committee. In short, he is involved in everything related to information, with a measure of business development and teaching thrown in. His role demonstrates how technology and information have become interoperable and interdependent at all levels of government, and Molchany takes the diversity and juggling in stride.

So why is economic development part of Molchany's job?

"Economic development strategy enables a knowledge-based economy," Molchany explains in his presentations. With a 1.7 percent unemployment rate and some 540,000 jobs in Fairfax County, including 4,700 technology firms, the reliance on information exchange among government, business and citizens is hard to ignore. A few groups that rely on information and require Molchany's input are:

  • The Land Use Information Accessibility Advisory Group;
  • Consumer Protection Commission;
  • Tenant Landlord Commission;
  • Trespass Towing Advisory Board;
  • Public Safety Transportation Operation Center Committee;
  • Emergency Management Coordinator Committee;
  • Senior IT Steering Committee; and
  • Special Needs Committee.

    Why would a CIO participate in discussions about land use?

    "The Land Use Committee wanted to see a more interactive and useful Web portal," Molchany said. Through a series of meetings, the committee pushed for the creation of My Neighborhood, an Internet-based miniportal with mapping and information applications. "The members wanted more Web site relationships and links that made sense, so we did a huge outreach and focus groups [to accomplish this]."

    Citizen and community input is central to county policy. In concert with Molchany's office, the Office of Public Affairs and the e-government team disseminate the results of these ongoing dialogs with the public and business community on many information-related issues.

    This much collaboration can only be achieved with constant meetings, and top-down leadership consistently encourages input from all sides. "We have a continual improvement process to determine e-government priorities," Molchany said, pointing to his team's efforts to promote citizen focus groups, Web- and kiosk-based surveys, chamber of commerce focus groups, and outreach to county departments and the Board of Supervisors.

    Can Success Be Cloned?
    Fairfax County garners a lot of attention for its high-quality offering of digital services to county employees and residents. The Web site received the Best of the Web recognition, and the county was named a Digital Counties Survey winner two years in a row by the Center for Digital Government and the National Association of Counties.

    These successes in digital government can be attributed in part to Molchany's leadership style and vision for county government, Gibson said. "Dave is an extraordinary visionary. He very quickly sees opportunities in new trends and adapts them to public functions. With this uncanny sense, he moves immediately into place a plan for implementation." There is no question that strong leadership can move mountains. On the other hand, with government's traditional and well earned stereotype of slow-moving, top-heavy bureaucracy, one might question the real push behind the move toward e-government and greater attention to serving the public. Budgetary constraints and the development of a knowledge and Internet-centric economy explain this transformation, and factor in the IT department's fundamental principles.

    According to its Web site, one of the department's missions is to "establish strategic cooperative arrangements with public and private enterprises to extend limited resources." With this in mind, the county's technology systems operate on open standards rather than proprietary solutions, resulting in an integrated enterprise network and "free movement of data, graphics, image, video and voice."

    Consequently the IT department's strategy is to "approach IT undertakings as a partnership of central management and agencies providing for a combination of centralized and distributed implementation."

    "Governments are looking to become more efficient," Molchany said, adding that in Fairfax County, one focus of the Board of Supervisors has been to minimize the growth of government, in spite of the population boom, which began in 1994. "In our case, the population was exploding," he said, adding that the board thought IT could be used to reorganize government and respond to this growth.

    "We have built on that reorganization." Gibson said. "When you have your elected government body behind you and strategic planning throughout the county, it's easier for strategies to come to fruition."

    At the same time, Molchany is committed to serving constituents. In the case of creating a level playing field for three cable TV providers, "We wanted to make sure customers have choices, and the board was very focused on maintaining competition and serving citizens," he said. Molchany's willingness to serve extends to the federal government, where he has sent representatives to work on a Government without Boundaries program and XML coaching.

    Fairfax County documents and shares its best practices, Gibson said. When Molchany talks with foreign governments, local and federal, he emphasizes the need for greater synergy across various levels of governments. In his economic development role, Molchany coaches businesses that are considering settling in Fairfax County. "People coming from small countries often underestimate the size of the U.S. when they consider starting a business here," he said. "Businesses and governments need to focus and determine what is important to their customers."

    Gibson noted, "We very carefully plan our IT direction and have put into place a number of practices that can be implemented in other jurisdictions more quickly, especially in the areas of project management certification, interoperability standards and IT investment strategies."

    However, when a delegation from Thailand was interested in the inner workings of digital government in Fairfax County, Molchany pointed out, "It has to be your plan and vision. You can't copy Fairfax exactly. Take what you already have and work with it."

    Serving Them All
    Molchany said customer service is a top priority for him and the county board. In a related task, Molchany also oversees the county's customer relationship management (CRM) project, which tracks interactions with constituents and administers new knowledge-based call center technology that integrates three county call centers with departmental CRM tracking applications. These centers are located in the Tax, Public Affairs and Human Services departments. Via the Web site and numerous walk-in facilities, county residents and businesses have ample opportunity to communicate with county government and receive services. Molchany's work with the Consumer Protection Department also keeps his finger on the pulse of the community.

    Clear strategies are essential when working with so many departments. "Strategic direction determines all government investment, including IT and e-government," Molchany said, adding that constituent input, elected officials and senior managers shape these strategies.

    Molchany's curiosity and gregarious personality have possibly benefited him more in this position than his previous IT experience. He started out as a programmer with Sallie Mae and EDS, then a friend told him about a newspaper ad for a position with the county government's technology department. "The description with its varied duties sounded just like me," he recalled, adding that at times, these duties appeared overwhelming. "The day the county executive gave me the HIPAA job, I was not a happy person. It was a learning experience," Molchany admitted. But with the help of subject experts and many meetings, he tackled this unfamiliar topic and organized a successful strategy around it.

    Molchany is a keen listener and incorporates what he hears into policy. For instance, when a former employee filed allegations of poor management and inappropriate business practices within the Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection, Molchany took the accusations very seriously. Though an extensive investigation dismissed the former employee's claims, "[Molchany] reviewed the operations and business practices of the agency, and as a result, designed a reorganization plan that moved several functions into other departments. The audit and reorganization plan included recommendations to improve internal controls and enhance the accountability of staff," according to the Office of Public Affairs.

    In another example, the county recently completed an intergovernmental publicity initiative that is completely Web-based and accessible to employees. When a department or individual wants to publicize a particular project, they follow a checklist of items for their campaign. Based on this checklist, the Office of Public Affairs involves the appropriate parties and designs the publicity effort for that project. "You know where to start when you want to publicize something," said Molchany of the tool, which also helps with daily communications and the standardization of administrative tasks.

    Yet when some administrative assistants were unhappy with the new system, the complaints reached Molchany. He called a meeting and incorporated their suggestions. "Every department is involved," he said. "We have an excellent staff of creative people."

    Molchany, who actively participates in recruiting efforts, is reluctant to accept much praise and emphasizes the talents of his staff and the degree of interaction among departments.

    Molchany is very clear about how Fairfax County has benefited from IT investment in the last 15 years. Despite the county's 28 percent growth during this period to 1 million residents and the addition of 170 new facilities, he said, the ratio of county positions per 100 citizens has decreased by 18 percent, and the Board of Supervisors has decreased the tax rate each year.

    "We are going into two difficult years with the dip in the real-estate market," said Molchany, looking ahead, but with his consistent track record and tradition of collaborative leadership, he and his charges are likely to weather this challenge.