Each year, American cities that excel in the digital arena are recognized by the Center for Digital Government through its Digital Cities Survey. Now, as part of the Digital Communities initiative, the seventh annual survey in 2007 raised the bar for cities, with winners demonstrating that digital technology can connect citizens with their government on a level never before achieved. As a result of its continuing leadership and innovation, Santa Monica, Calif., ranked first in the mid-size city category (population of 75,000 to 124,999). Digital Communities discussed the city's winning strategies with CIO Jory Wolf.
Q: Can you first give us a capsule summary of information technology deployed in Santa Monica?
A: The city is about 8.3 square miles, located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and we are surrounded by the city of Los Angeles. We are a city council/city manager form of government, and we have a budget of about $170 million in the general fund, and about $50 million worth of capital improvement project funds. We have a city employee base of 2,146, and of that, 37 are IT employees. We currently have an IT operating budget of $4.9 million and a capital project budget of $6 million, which is inflated because several of our projects, including traffic-signal synchronization and parking advisory involve public works. We have a complement of 1,500 PCs. We have completed our virtualization projects and now have downsized from 140 servers to 75. We currently store 250 terabytes of data through our storage system that uses several SANs [storage area networks] on our network.
Q: You also have your own fiber network, which I understand has been important to much of what you have done.
A: Yes, the applications that we are most proud of are ones that have been built off our broadband networks. Beginning in 1998, the city created a telecommunications master plan and decided to stop paying Verizon $4.2 million annually by creating a fiber network that would serve the city, college and schools. We currently have 50 facilities on that network, and we've reduced our Verizon tab from $4.2 million to $1.3 million.
The city pooled all of its funds from all the departments and, through our local cable franchise, we paid Adelphia - it was Adelphia at the time - $530,000 and built the fiber network. This has allowed us to not only save money, but also has taken us to the next step with new applications that we wouldn't be able to use without robust communications.
It also provided opportunities for us to lease our fiber to businesses and co-location leases to businesses. We've established regional partners that allow us to do that. Now we've taken on a position of not just serving our internal city departments, but our community as well.
Our virtualization projects have enabled us to work smarter, lower the costs of our infrastructure, and improve our services and security. We now have a robust enterprise model that includes mirrored SANs using a fiber channel, VMware, virtual servers and blade enclosures. We are now following ILM [information life cycle management] and ITIL [Information Technology Infrastructure Library] for asset and desktop management.
Virtualization has taken us into the area of a quick disaster recovery model for business continuity. What used to take us hours in terms of backup and disaster recovery testing, is now only taking minutes for our critical applications.
The broadband has also enabled the other applications we've deployed. Some of them, I know, we never would have been able to do without fiber. And that includes the 17 Wi-Fi hot zones we implemented throughout the city in public spaces. We've implemented 150 public video cameras for security purposes on our promenade, pier and all of our parking structures. We also have streaming video through our police vehicles that can be viewed
at any time using HDPS [hard drive photo storage]. And when the vehicles arrive at the police station, the video is downloaded.
We've also used fiber optics for parking advisory signs at all of our parking structures. Before the public goes into one of the multilevel structures and drives around to find there is no parking, they are advised before they enter. We also push out information in real time to the Web every five seconds; the public now has a refresh. And we've been working with Google: Google now has applications in their "maplets" and we are now working with them on an SMS [short-message service] application, so you can get parking availability on your cell phone. Of course, we've implemented voice over IP, which saved us a bundle of money and allowed us to do away with T1s. We no longer lease those circuits. We now put all our traffic signals on our network; so far we have moved about 50 percent of the traffic signals on the city's network. We are working with the regional partners, such as the MTA [Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority] for Rapid Bus transit priority in Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
We have implemented traffic cameras throughout the city and we are now deciding whether to make this available to the public to view over the Internet. We are also investigating wireless parking meters through Wi-Fi and cellular technologies. And again, none of this would have been possible without the underpinnings of fiber broadband.
Q: What have been the primary challenges in accomplishing all of this?
A: We believe you have to organize your IT internally to effectively communicate with your business partners. Some of the areas that were a focus for us were: GIS document management, Web services and many others. We aligned staff to ensure those areas were well understood and well staffed within the organization. That way our clients were able to go to those areas for resources that would help them with their particular needs. When we found there were needs for our clients outside the areas IT typically manages, such as water utility or permitting, we actually outsourced our staff and they would sit in the trenches so to speak, working with that business unit, even though they still reported to my IT managers.
It was very important for us to make sure we had ongoing funding. We made sure we communicated the need for depreciating all of our assets, including what's on the desktop, the server assets and our network assets. Everything we own is now depreciated and is in a refresh cycle through enterprise funding, which covers desktops, servers, networks, telecommunications, and fiber-optic enhancements and growth. It has been extremely useful for us to stay current and to make sure everyone is working on the same playing field. That's been key for making sure we can deploy enterprisewide applications in a timely manner.
Q: Did you also look for alternate sources of funding?
A: Yes, but really when possible, we would become entrepreneurs and look at ways to pool funds. I mentioned that we pooled funds from the city, school district and college to build our fiber networks, as well as to manage those. But we are now in the process of leasing colocation space and dark fiber to companies, such as HBO, Google, Fox Entertainment and many others. Santa Monica is fortunate in that we are close to Hollywood; there is a lot of video production and postproduction houses that serve the studios here that need to communicate to the rest of the world. We now have become their connection point, and this is actually nurturing them to stay and fostering new ones to move into the community.
It is very important for us to develop a culture of service. We have empowered staff to become [service] representatives throughout the departments. They actually meet regularly within IT and report back to their teams on what we are doing with new policies and practices in customer service. Then they bring back new ideas from the teams, so we refresh our policies and practices based on input from everyone in IT. No one is left out, and we communicate the discussions from the team meetings to everyone in our department, to make sure everyone feels they are a part of what is going on. That helps to ensure they feel empowered.
Of course, we measure how well we are doing. For our help desk, we use Altiris and we do surveys twice a year. Then we also do them ad hoc when we implement new services to see how our customers feel about how things were rolled out. We recognize not only our employees for doing an excellent job, but we've established some interesting strategies. For example, competitions and awards for our clients in city departments who do the best in cleaning up old files or submitting most of their help desk calls online, versus calling the help desk telephone number, and other similar strategies.
Q: Putting a strong emphasis on customer service seems to have paid off. Is this just focused internally?
A: [Customer service] has been an important part of our success. Actually we have become the organization's best department for practicing customer service. We just had an internal services survey and IT scored 90 percent customer satisfaction. That was over finance - I'm sorry to say that - and HR and also our internal services. We are now seen as the go-to people for modeling the best behaviors for internal customer service. Now we are branching out to external customer service as well. That really helps to get us involved in a lot of high-level projects, where we have an opportunity to infuse strategies using IT for improving customer service in the community.
This brings me to a key point: becoming a community IT organization and moving from the internal perspective to the external perspective. This involves taking control and managing people and projects that directly improve livability and mobility within the city. We are now tackling projects the public can see directly, and they are communicating with us directly through our traffic signal synchronization, the bus transit priority and parking advisory, and the parking meter systems. We now have advisory groups that act as support mechanisms for our initiatives.
Q: What lessons have you learned through all of this? What would you have done differently?
A: I would try to build out the fiber assets earlier. We didn't start this until 2002, even though we had a communications master plan in 1998, which gave the council's blessing to allow us to start building fiber for government use. The reason I say this, is that the fiber-broadband infrastructure has really revolutionized the way we do business, the applications we deploy, the manageability and reliability of our infrastructure and all of the things that improve customer service internally and externally.
Another thing I would do earlier is create an IT academy. I'm in the process of putting all the department heads, division heads and key staff, including supervisors and key project leaders, through an IT academy. This is mandatory, just like harassment in the workplace training, even though it's not a legal regulatory requirement, it is an internal one. If everyone had gone to the IT academy earlier, I believe that my job and my staff's job would have been much easier.
I would also provide performance bonuses to my staff. Fortunately all of
my analysts who have bachelors' and masters' degrees are eligible for a performance-based bonus. However, my rank-and-file people, who are my desktop technicians, help desk technicians and the first line of support - those who do most of the customer service work in our organization - do not get performance-based bonuses. So I need to find other ways to reward those people and provide incentives for them.
I would internalize asset management. The more we can manage the assets - not just computer technology within the city, but our building assets - the smarter our facilities become, the easier it is to manage the entire infrastructure within the city.
Q: What would your advice be to your peers in other communities?
A: Well, it may not be original, but I still think it boils down to always being a leader. Be proactive, not reactive. Be entrepreneurial; try to find funding wherever possible and work with the politicians as much as possible to develop and nurture revenue sources. It's very important to continue to demonstrate a customer focus. Be strategic whenever you can - always look for ways to magnify initiatives and results whenever possible.