Local Transformation

Peter Anderson remembers when being a city CIO was not all it was cracked up to be.

by / October 9, 2006

As the first person to have that title in Columbus, Ohio, Peter Anderson was given the daunting task of establishing an IT department, developing IT policies and procedures, and finding ways to improve how IT resources were shared.

"I spent a lot of my time demonstrating the validity of why IT is important," recalled Anderson, a former U.S. Navy officer and director of the Defense Logistics Agency Systems Design Center. Even his military background didn't quite prepare him for the battles he faced inside the Columbus bureaucracy.

"My peers didn't get it," he said. "They saw IT as a threat to their authority and funding. As a result, they weren't cooperative in helping me clean up the islands of automation that existed back then."

Times have changed and Anderson has moved on. He's now the CIO for fast-growing Fort Worth, Texas, and has the backing of the city manager and the respect of his peers who recognize the need for technology based, for the most part, on enterprise strategies. "There's been a big change in how IT is viewed since I came to Fort Worth," Anderson said. "We're not just the utility for government, but we're a business partner at the table and at strategic planning sessions. We're no longer an afterthought."

Tossing Nickels
Anderson's experience illustrates, to a certain degree, the fundamental shift occurring among CIOs in local government. CIOs do not have to validate the importance of IT to their peers and bosses. Instead they now provide an IT perspective to the strategic vision that's necessary for serving the public at the local level.

But with this elevation in importance comes responsibility and risk. "They are being asked to do a lot more," said Alan R. Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute (PTI), a city-county technology organization. Shark has noticed an increase in the use of the term CIO in local government that goes hand in hand with the growing functionality of the role. "I asked a group of local government IT leaders how many had the title CIO five years ago and only two out of 30 raised their hand," Shark said. "They had the function but not the title. Now they have both. It mirrors what's happening in the private sector and that's good."

Along with having to do a lot more, local government CIOs are doing it all with less -- less staff and less funding. As Cook County, Ill., CIO Catherine Maras O'Leary likes to remind people, the county's board of supervisors tosses nickels around like they would a manhole cover. And yet O'Leary and her peers are finding ways to get the job done. Local CIOs have learned the art of deal making, regional partnering and private-sector partnering -- under the right circumstances -- whether it's for a new community wireless network, badly needed training for staff, or just to pilot test a new technology.

In dozens of interviews with local government CIOs, Public CIO has found city and county CIOs to be a nimble and plucky group of IT professionals who are learning to be more politically savvy and building relationships with elected officials in ways that were often ignored in the past. Today's local government CIO can be a veteran bureaucrat or someone from the private sector brought in to turn things around in a hurry.

Besides laying down wireless networks, which is all the rage right now, they are increasing the use of customer relationship management (CRM) for 311-type customer response solutions; boosting the number of enterprise content-, case- and emergency-management solutions; and increasing their reliance on regional partnerships to get their job done.

But they are also struggling with a host of problems ranging from work force issues, retirement problems among management-level IT staff, and overall management concerns that have evolved from the increasingly complex IT world in which they work. City CIOs in particular continue to struggle with powerful public safety departments when it comes to battles over funding and interoperability of voice communications and information sharing.

We Want to be First, Not Last
Dan Jarvis offers a fitting example of where local CIOs stand in the first decade of the 21st century. Jarvis is CIO for the unified government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., which serves a population of 158,000. For starters, he works for a consolidated government. Except for a handful of others, consolidated local government is still the exception. But it's happening more, and presents an opportunity -- and challenge -- for CIOs. Just ask Beth Niblock, who was brought in from the private sector expressly to help merge the IT departments in newly unified Louisville and Jefferson County, Ky. As government operations become more complex and expensive, experts believe there will be more demand for unified governments.

Unlike Niblock, Jarvis hasn't had to merge IT departments, and he's been in government for a while, having held IT management positions in Cleveland and Denver prior to taking over in Kansas City in 2003. But he works for a young mayor who's not afraid to embrace technology and gives Jarvis the authority to get the job done.

As a result, Jarvis has an impressive list of IT projects completed or under way that would be the envy of any big-city CIO. "When I arrived, I initially focused on infrastructure projects," said Jarvis, such as VoIP and a fiber-optic connectivity project. Now the focus is on applications aimed at services and revenue, including code enforcement, tax collection, appraisals, court management, traffic ticketing and document management and with more to come.

"We're doing all this for the simple reason that technology saves money for local governments," said Jarvis, adding that his mid-sized city is aggressive with technology because smaller local governments have a greater need to save costs than larger jurisdictions. "We should be first, not last, when it comes to using technology."

Perhaps Kansas City's most valuable project is the 311 CRM system slated to go live by the end of 2007. The fact that a jurisdiction the size of Kansas City is installing such a system is part of a remarkable new trend in how local governments are implementing technology. Just a few years ago, only the nation's largest cities could afford to build these high-tech call centers.

Now, however, smaller sized cities are installing 311, and it's easy to see why. CIOs from large jurisdictions where 311 has been in place for a few years or more, call it the most valuable service a local government can have from a public-perception standpoint. It literally changes the view of public service from one that is reactive and uncaring to the opposite.

Citizen hotlines, such as 311, have also proven highly effective in emergencies. New York City found its 311 system a boon in terms of handling a spike in citizens' queries when a blackout occurred in 2003. But while the technology cost has decreased, the expense for running 311 has not. In 2005, New York City estimated it spent $7 handling every 311 call it received, versus just 20 cents for a Web interaction. Finding ways to reduce 311 costs while maintaining the popular service remains one of the biggest challenges for local CIOs.

Blind Belief in Wi-Fi
If 311 is the answer to the call for a more service-oriented 21st-century city and county, then wireless community networks are the manifestation of the information highway that former Vice President Al Gore and others talked about so fervently in the early years of the Internet. In many places, these networks are free or cost little to use, and provide a much faster ramp onto the Internet than traditional dial-up.

As of June 2006, 247 local jurisdictions had deployed a Wi-Fi network or plan to do so, according to MuniWireless.com. Some jurisdictions have strung up wireless for government use only, but the vast majority of wireless projects are meant for the community. Philadelphia jump-started the trend in 2004 when Mayor John F. Street launched Wireless Philadelphia, the first large-scale city-led wireless project. It didn't take long before the clarion call for muni wireless went up among elected officials countrywide.

The result has been intense pressure from county commissioners and mayors on CIOs to embark on some kind of community wireless project, whether justifiable or not, according to PTI's Shark. "I'm a strong proponent of muni wireless, but there are situations where the private sector can do a better job, or a public-private partnership," he said. "There's a blind belief in the power of Wi-Fi among elected officials. Then it's up to the CIO to figure out what can be done in a reasonable time frame."

In the blue-collar city of Corpus Christi, Texas, where shipping, chemicals and refining are the economic backbone, wireless catapulted digital government into the forefront, but not because it was the "idea of the month." In fact, to understand how the Corpus Christi wireless project has become the poster child for successful government Wi-Fi, you have to go back to 2000, when MIS Director Ogilvie Gericke, a South Africa native and a city staffer since 1979, took over the IT department.

Back then, IT was highly decentralized, with each city department running its own IT program. But as technology changed, Gericke changed how it was managed within the city. Infrastructures, such as servers, were centralized. Proper governance, through an IT steering committee, was born. In time, Gericke and his staff had a seat at the table with the other department heads, helping to lay down business plans.

One of those plans involved automating the city utility's labor-intensive meter reading program, which the utility was in a position to pay for with its own funding stream. By holding a key position within the city's business planning process, however, Gericke convinced the utility and the city to think strategically about wireless.

"Nearly 60 percent of the city's work force is already out in the field," he explained. "We expect the needs for mobile technology to grow in the field of e-health and education, for example. The same goes for our business community, especially small firms that may not have much in the way of electronic applications right now, but will in the future."

Instead of building a modest wireless hotzone with mild expectations to provide citizens -- and possibly government workers -- with some mobile connectivity, Corpus Christi will have a 147-square-mile network. This network is not only fully funded, but also anchored by a key application -- meter reading -- to be followed by applications for building inspections, public safety, and as Gericke pointed out, e-commerce, education and e-health down the road. This is the kind of wireless project analysts praise: one that is based on sound business reasons, backed by a plan that has buy-in from the government's chief executives.

But one must also credit these kinds of success stories to CIOs who can see the big picture, understand how technology can integrate government business, and know how to make these projects happen without throwing local government processes and culture into turmoil. Like many other successful CIOs, Gericke is blessed with CEOs -- in this case, Mayor Henry Garrett and City Manager Skip Noe -- who get what technology can do and have made the CIO part of their senior team.

"As never before, the CIO needs to be part of the mayor's or the county commissioner's cabinet," said Shark. "You've got to be in there for decision-making. In the end, it's not about technology, but leadership."

What Is a Project?
In a country as big and diverse as the United States, it's not surprising that issues facing local governments vary from region to region. For example, city and county CIOs located along the Southeastern and Gulf region must factor the hurricane season into their annual IT programs. In parts of the Northeast and Midwest, declining and aging population demographics are putting new pressures on local government -- and IT department -- budgets, while in parts of the South, West and Southwest, the issue is just the opposite: double-digit population growth.

But when it comes to local government IT in general and CIOs in particular, specific issues rise to the surface and trends emerge. For example, centralization of IT resources continues to grow as more cities and counties implement digital solutions that cut across departments. Resource sharing among jurisdictions is also up, as local governments continue to seek ways to cut redundancy and cost.

The ongoing build-out of broadband connectivity and local portals has boosted the number of digital applications that touch citizens. As a result, CIOs report they now often communicate directly with the public about what they want in terms of enhanced government services. The 2005 Digital Cities Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government, reports the fastest growing online services were for building permits and utility bill payments -- applications that touch businesses and citizens far more frequently than, say, tax payment services. And they are doing more projects at once: 311, CRM, content management, public safety, as well as setting new standards and continuing to develop IT infrastructure, such as VoIP.

These trends have forced CIOs to become much more adept at managing resources, staff and projects, according to Shark. "CIOs are asking themselves, 'How do you determine what is a project, what is a task and what is a program?' Each has different timelines, different expectations and everybody works on these things at different levels."

The result, according to Shark, is a greater need for management skills, and planning tools among local CIOs to help them make better decisions and figure out how to manage all these projects simultaneously.

At the same time, senior IT professionals are either resigning or retiring in growing numbers. An informal poll by Government Technology magazine found that 54 percent of city CIOs have been in government for at least 20 years. Coincidentally or not, CIOs from some of the nation's largest cities -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia -- either resigned or retired in 2006.

Shark said that PTI is refocusing its mission on local-level CIOs, first to help out the ever-changing legions of CIOs, but more importantly because the CIO has become a key person in local government these days. "He or she is now signing off on the transportation budget, the wastewater budget, all these kinds of things that before were much more decentralized," Shark said. Later this fall, PTI plans to announce the startup of a certification program for local government CIOs and technologists.

But for many local government CIOs, the core issues they face revolve around a dearth of qualified IT workers willing to work for government pay to program and run sophisticated IT projects. The other overarching issue centers on turf.

Some city and county departments with their own source of funding -- such as a wastewater or water utility -- build their own IT system and hang on to their own IT staff, whether the system is part of the jurisdiction's overall strategic plan or not.

For city CIOs, the problem can be public safety, the so-called "favored nation" in local government. Fire and police have substantial budgets and are used to doing things technologically their own way. Some city CIOs have found working with these departments a true test of willpower and their skills at developing professional relationships. Today the challenge is interoperability. Since 9/11, police and fire departments are under pressure to establish interoperability agreements and standards so communications in an emergency can't be compromised by incompatibility, different protocols and so on.

Some CIOs have assigned a specific IT person to work with the public safety departments on a regular basis. Others have shared IT capital funds with police and fire departments to get a seat at their planning table. As one CIO puts it, "In the end, it's about learning to work with a different culture to make better partnerships."

That, in a nutshell, also sums up the job of today's local government CIO.

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.