Long-time Las Vegas CIO Joseph Marcella retired this week after completing an 18-year dedication to government IT — a passion that kept him entranced because, as he said, you can never quite get it right.
Marcella told Government Technology that he plans to take a month off, perhaps traveling and doing a few other things he never had time to do while serving as city CIO. Even in his off-time, Marcella dedicated his energy and mind to work-related pursuits: industry conferences, committees and groups.
For two years, he chaired the governor’s information technology advisory board, a group aimed at consolidating, standardizing and managing the government agencies across Nevada. He’s president of the Nevada Society for Information Management (SIM), and for 12 years, Marcella chaired a the State of Nevada Entities Technology Alliance (SNETA), a group of Nevada CIOs who look for opportunities to collaborate.
Former Los Vegas City Manager Larry Barton hired Marcella in 1997. Both Barton and Marcella had been Air Force fighter pilots, and Barton thought Marcella's military experience would bring a rigor and discipline not found in other candidates for the job. His new hire also had 14 years’ experience in the private sector, working as the senior vice president and director of information services at Wells Fargo, then Norwest Bank.
Marcella said Barton was frustrated that city government systems didn't act more like those in the cockpit of an aircraft.
“He couldn’t understand why in the ’60s he could fly an airplane and have munitions on his right, navigation on his left and then actually fly the thing in the middle, and all the systems were inter-related,” Marcella said. “Why couldn’t he run the city the same way?”
Over the next two decades, city officials like Barton and Marcella endeavored to make their 20 government silos operate like something more closely resembling a fighter jet. Barton created the Virtual Las Vegas initiative, a plan to centralize operations for a more efficient and smart approach to IT service delivery. With Y2K ahead, Marcella helped the city avert a crisis and develop a new ERP system at the same time. His first big project was a sign of good things to come.
“Back then, everybody was trying to get ERP done or try to get those systems rebuilt or connected in some fashion,” Marcella said. “We were very successful in that. So successful that Oracle considered us an Oracle showcase, and we were the only municipal government that they ever pointed to so that others could learn from our success in our installation.”
Las Vegas continues to strive toward the goal of unified service delivery, and to the extent the city has succeeded, Marcella is chiefly responsible. Las Vegas is now in the middle of a project that will combine public works, planning, building and safety, and business licensing into one location.
The fighter jet theory turned the city’s attention toward its customers, Marcella said. “Instead of being department-centric, we turned it upside down so you weren’t looking for departments. We consistently asked the question of what you wanted and then we delivered that through the relationship we had with multiple departments. So the traditional government approach went away.”
The city’s citizen-centric approach to service delivery can be seen in its Web design. Las Vegas was awarded first place in the Center for Digital Government’s Best of the Web awards in 2008, and was also recognized the two years prior.
Marcella says one of his proudest achievements was keeping city systems operating smoothly throughout the economic downturn. Las Vegas avoided IT crisis by keeping infrastructure current, being careful not to get overextended and using performance-based budgeting to ensure that services were provided efficiently.
“I kind of think of myself as a businessperson,” he said. “When it comes to city government, I’m not really stuck with the technology, certainly not enamored with it, and for the most part, I just understand city business. It’s kind of like enabling the business of government through technology. On the enabling side, understanding the business purpose and then leveraging the heck out of the infrastructure and the technology that’s there to deliver the services.”
Today’s evolving workforce and populace presents a challenge to government that leaders should be aware of, Marcella said. There are four generations in the workforce and four generations in the community, he said. Millennials demand a different type of service delivery and workplace than the baby boomers who came before them.
“We need to get a little more nimble. We need to ensure the infrastructure is in place," Marcella said. "Then there’s the rise of the chief innovation officer, the chief data officer and the like. All of that trend is to get enough information … to align our services with those folks we are supposed to deliver [them] to.”
Despite all the talk about knocking down silos, governments continue to struggle on that front, Marcella says. Too many governments don't have a clear understanding of who their customers are, he added, and they're often unwilling to explore new options for service delivery.
“Remember, you can do almost anything when it comes to providing services: You can build it, you can buy it, you can rent it or you can share it with another community," Marcella said. "There’s a lot of competition out there and a lot of reluctance to do that last piece, which is to share.”
Since announcing his retirement, Marcella says he’s received a lot of different offers — for consulting, for teaching and from nonprofits, which he’s weighing now. He said he’s been so busy the last few decades that retirement to him is a chance to improve the quality of his work.
“You get so busy and have so many things to do that you just run through them, and then you’ve got your fingers crossed that you didn’t miss anything,” he said. “It looks like I can literally spend some time in the community, work part time, to try and give back a little bit and have a little bit more time to concentrate and do it right.”
Marcella hasn’t flown since ’71, he added, but he’s thinking about getting his pilot’s license again as he leaves Las Vegas IT to someone else.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.