Detroit has big problems, but that’s what attracted Beth Niblock to her position as the city’s new chief information officer. Niblock served as CIO of Louisville, Ky., for more than 10 years, overseeing the city’s technology as it merged with the county in 2003 and then nurturing the infrastructure into a more advanced state in the following years. On Feb. 24, Niblock brought her experience to Detroit, where she will support Mayor Mike Duggan’s Plan of Adjustment, a 440-page document that details how the city will attempt to overcome financial and cultural ruin.
People have been steadily leaving Detroit since 1950, when the city’s population peaked at about 1.8 million. Today, the population is about 700,000. Detroit has the highest unemployment rate among the largest 50 cities in the country, it was the most impoverished among 71 cities surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012 with more than 36 percent of citizens living below the poverty line, and although crime has been escalating, officials have been forced to close police stations and cut budgets. Last year, Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy.
Niblock visited Detroit while still working for Louisville along with a group of civic leaders, entrepreneurs and government officials put together by the White House. It was during that visit that something clicked for her, she said – all those talented people who wanted to solve a big problem reminded her of the early days of working as a CIO in Louisville and harkened back to why she got involved with government in the first place. “It’s almost like a startup where you’re working a ton of hours and everyone’s enthusiastic," she said, "and the can-do attitude about the turnaround is something that was very appealing to me.”
As leader of technology in Detroit, Niblock will be starting with the basics so she and her team can support all the goals the mayor has outlined. “The mayor has a very definitive plan," Niblock said. "He has turned things around before, and he is a driven person that has really great ideas."
The city has been struggling with an aging IT infrastructure for years, she said, so they need to determine the core projects that are needed to build a foundation for future success. That will include many initiatives that are basic and obvious, Niblock said, but they are crucial – this includes upgrading the city’s website, providing online forms rather than asking people to fax documents, and rolling out the supporting infrastructure for big projects like new financial management or permitting systems.
“[Detroit] is in somewhat of an enviable position where you get to skip generations of technology. So it’s not a VHS versus Beta discussion – you’re going straight to high-def digital,” she said. As Niblock has only been in her new position for a couple weeks, she said she is still meeting people in the city, learning about what resources they have, and working toward concrete 30-, 60- and 90-day plans.
“The big thing is that Mayor Duggan’s brought a huge sense of urgency to everything that’s happening here,” Niblock said. “He basically said in his inaugural address to the citizens of Detroit, 'Give us six months and you’ll see visible signs of change.'” It will be her job to make sure the other agencies and departments have the infrastructure they need to make those goals happen.
Niblock saw a lot during her years as CIO of the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, from merging the city and county governments, to advancing the sophistication of the organization’s technology to include a new HR system, financial system and 311 work order management system, as well as building human capital by training employees in new technology and hiring more experts. The government’s technology was award-winning while Niblock was on staff: The Center for Digital Government named it one of the top digital cities in the U.S. in 2013 and also hailed its website as best in the nation in 2012. In addition, Louisville became a Code for America city last year, and built onto a new policy by Mayor Greg Fischer that by default all data would be open.
Louisville went from the basics to a more sophisticated and award-winning IT environment, and that’s what Niblock would like to see happen in Detroit. As for whoever replaces her in Louisville, Niblock said she wouldn’t venture to give them any advice. “I think they’ve got a good team down there who’s going to hire somebody that’s out of this world,” she said. “The people who are there, and I’ve found that here in Detroit too, work so hard, are so dedicated and are so personally committed to what they do, it’s just an honor to be part of that team, whether it’s in Louisville or here [in Detroit].”
Niblock passed on the opportunity to guess what achievements she will look back on after another 10 years of government service. Instead, Niblock said she will let her work speak for itself.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.