From her “humble beginnings” in the heart of Chicago, Debbie Cotton has risen through the ranks to become the CIO of Phoenix. Her down-to-earth style and ability to bring others up to speed with city initiatives has made her an invaluable part of a local government that has its eye on providing long-term, cost-effective solutions to constituents. Public CIO caught up with Cotton to talk about her career and the direction she sees the nation’s sixth largest city moving in the coming years.

Q: Tell our readers what brought you to Phoenix. It’s strikingly different from Chicago. What was the draw?

I consider myself essentially an urban person by nature. When you grow up in a big city like Chicago, you’re just a big city kind of person in terms of having the benefit of all that Chicago had to offer: arts, museums, culture, theater, all that kind of stuff. I had exposure to all of that as a young person. I just had a normal childhood living in the city of Chicago, which is unusual. Most people you talk to from Chicago are from the suburbs. I’m actually from the city and was part of the Chicago Public Schools system. [It was] just a great life, humble beginnings, but it proves that it’s not where you are from, it’s where you are going.

I love Chicago, but it’s cold and I never liked snow and winter and all of that, so I actually started to migrate west. I landed in California in the Los Angeles area for a couple of months, but couldn’t find a foothold there and ended up in Phoenix, getting a job and meeting many great people and wonderful mentors.

Q: You’ve worked for a number of departments within the city of Phoenix. How did you end up overseeing IT?

I landed my first professional job about six months after I got here. I worked for Xerox for a number of years, and that was how I started working in technology — in a corporate setting, working with large clients, like Motorola, Honeywell and the aerospace industry. [I got] a lot of wonderful training in technology, customer relationships, understanding how to solve problems and working with people at a variety of levels in many organizations.

After leaving Xerox, I worked for the Resolution Trust Corporation as a network administrator for a couple of years and then transitioned to the city. I tried working in the Parks Department, I did a stint in the IT Department working with SAP as a systems administrator, transitioned to the Public Transit Department as a technology administrator and then became the interim director of the Public Transit Department. It was a totally different industry. I was in transit altogether about 10 years. Then I went to the convention center, where I was the director for a couple of years. And then I was asked to come back and be the CIO.

Q: What do you see on the horizon for IT in Phoenix?

Our model is really a federated one. We have a central IT department and then we have a number of departments that have their own technology staff. One of the initiatives we are working on is a shared services initiative. We are a city of 14,000 employees and 26 lines of business, so we are really a government corporation. We are really a large conglomerate if you think about it in business terms. We have many, many systems, and what we are going to be working on is, for example, if you need a solution for asset management, we’re going to all use the same asset management system. If you need a system for project management, we’re going to all use the same project management system. If you need to do licensing, we’re going to all use the same licensing system because licensing is licensing. Why do we need multiple systems?

Our departments’ core mission is not to deliver technology. Our core mission is to provide public housing, public transportation and airport services, and deliver clean water, pick up sanitation, etc. The thing that we are expressing to people is to focus on your core business and let us do the technology piece.

Q: Like most states, Arizona was hit hard by the economic downturn of 2008. How has Phoenix adapted to a limited budget while still providing vital services?

We were right there with Las Vegas in terms of the housing collapse. Our real estate market was really that bad. The other opportunity and challenge that we have is really that our revenues are largely sales-tax-dependent, primarily in construction sales tax. This region was the innovator behind air conditioning and behind building single-family homes in mass quantity. That’s how we have grown so much in the past 40 years. When you have an economy that’s built on growth and your growth stops — not only stops but stops via a knee-jerk reaction — the tax base changes. Our revenues have not recovered. This is why our shared services initiative is so important.

Q: Are all of the departments on board with this unified idea?

We are fortunate in that we have executive-level buy-in from our city manager and his cabinet, so to speak. They understand the value of [a unified approach]. We’ve put the numbers to it, we’ve done analysis and it just does not make sense [for every department to run their own systems]. Everyone cannot be an expert in multiple fields.

We are working with departments; some are quicker to come on board than others, but that’s normal. Change is a constant, but change is hard. So we meet people where they are. We’re going with the willing first, then we will circle back and gather up the rest. It’s a journey, it’s a marathon. But one of the things we have done to continue this process is that we have developed, in the industry it’s called IT governance, but we refer to it as business investment. … It’s not our goal to beat people over the head, but what we’re talking about is starting the conversation around “What are your department’s strategic business drivers and how can we help you get there?” We’re trying to change the conversation. It’s really about solving a business problem, it’s not about buying a thing.

Q: How is Phoenix working with partners throughout the state?

Our state passed a law a few years ago to have all of the sales tax collected at the state level as opposed to at the local level. As you can imagine, for cities and towns in Arizona that is quite bothersome. What we are doing to help our partners, at their request, is using our Oracle tools and suite of [business intelligence] solutions so that we can understand the level at which cities are collecting taxes today. We are putting together a solution so that the city of Phoenix can understand its current sales tax collection and past trends, and all the other cities in Maricopa County and our region are partnering with us on this and looking to us to provide a solution they can use so that we can have our own data. No one wants to be dependent on someone else for tax data. People really want to understand this for themselves.

We are being asked more and more to talk about the business solution we put together for our Public Works Department. We used them as the model for how we get your information out of the silo and how you can turn your data into actionable information. People are coming to us to understand how we’ve leveraged these tools and what are some of the efficiencies. Our Public Works Department has been able to make their routing more efficient for trash collection, and they’ve been able to remove trucks from the street. This means they will not necessarily lower their costs, but keep them from escalating in the future.

Q: How has the city partnered with the technology industry to improve its IT efforts?

Last November we held a technology summit and partnered with a dozen to 15 individuals from the private sector and talked to them about the state of our technology, where we are and some of our pain points. We actually got them to give us some recommendations and findings in a report, which we presented to our elected officials, and they are really acting on those items.

Q: Looking ahead, what are some of the opportunities you want to make sure Phoenix is ready for?

We’re continuing to leverage and expand our business intelligence environment to get more departments to unlock their data and make it actionable. We are also looking toward how we can be more digital; how can we have more of our data out there for our public to take advantage of? I mean, it is their data.

Eyragon Eidam  |  Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.