With New CIO at Helm, Baltimore Crafts First Strategic IT Plan

Former Intel executive Frank Johnson, Baltimore's new chief information officer, is spearheading creation of its first digital transformation plan.

by / February 7, 2018
Mid-town Baltimore, MD. Shutterstock

The city of Baltimore, which searched nationwide before plucking its new top tech executive from the private sector late last year, hopes to realize a first later this year under his direction — creating an enterprisewide road map for information technology (IT) modernization.

Frank Johnson (pictured at left), Baltimore’s new chief information officer, was its first private-sector CIO hire since at least 2010 when he arrived in October. The city’s three previous CIOs came from government. And Johnson, a presence at Intel for more than 25 years, acknowledged that he brings with him a familiarity with five-year cycles — something of a private-sector standard.

But the CIO said the city, whose Mayor Catherine Pugh last year talked about a serious need for “forward-thinking” people at City Hall, should be moving along a new course within that timeframe — and away from a culture that’s still significantly tied to mainframe.

“The mayor has made it clear that … the city needs to increase its investment and focus in tech. So, for the first time in the history of Baltimore city, we are writing an inclusive IT strategic plan, or a digital transformation plan,” Johnson said recently, in a conversation with Government Technology, to closely reflect and guide the city’s mission. He added that the plan’s exact title was still being written.

That plan, Johnson said, will likely divide into three parts, the first devoted to people and process — and with the “No. 1 focus” of building staffing and “reorganizing a modern IT team with an eye toward executing the strategy.”

Its second section will center on IT priorities — which include a list of ranked infrastructure needs. These include consolidating servers and networks, virtualizing and containerizing workloads, and opening a path to the cloud; creating a new dev-ops team; and getting off the mainframe.

Baltimore, Johnson said, “still runs most of its financials and [human resources] on a mainframe,” and will need a citywide enterprise resource platform “with an eye toward a modern capability” — an undertaking he described as a huge project.

Most successful municipal-level implementations of this type that he has seen “focus for 12 to 18 months on planning,” he said, identifying the right technology and reimagining processes, with the goal not of digitizing old ways but finding new ones.

“You know that none of this is easy, which is probably why it hasn’t been done yet. With all fairness to the IT people in Baltimore city, this is long, it’s hard and it’s expensive,” Johnson said.

The new plan, which could be ready for public comment later in the year’s first quarter, will also include a smart cities component — though the CIO said Baltimore’s infrastructure must rise to meet any such future initiatives.

“We’ve got to build the foundation of the central IT authority to be able to handle the influx of data before we start lighting up the network,” Johnson said.

Funding a broad IT modernization, even one likely to have a timed deployment, would not be easy. Johnson said officials have asked him the cost “to do it right” — but he’s already aware the city may only be able to “directly fund” a portion of the effort during its first three years.

He said the city would greatly rely on the community to lean in and help bridge any gaps “with people and/or investment,” describing the planning horizon as around five years.

The CIO said 90 percent of IT projects hinge on finding the necessary resources, and changing how people work, or impacting the organizational culture. He said a “huge desire” to do so already exists, and people can readily see and understand why technology can improve city processes — but said many processes in place are “somewhat dated.”

That said, Baltimore has already begun making some processes more intelligent. In late 2016 and continuing last year, the city rolled out so-called “smart” water meters that measured consumption to the hour and reported results wirelessly. The city, which had previously read meters every three months, also began sending customers monthly bills.

Last month, the city announced a $15 million project to deploy roughly 4,000 Wi-Fi-equipped "smart" trash cans, in an effort to do more to keep public areas clean.

And Johnson praised the Baltimore City Health Department for having done well at maximizing opportunities to advance its agenda with tech. It “does a good job of leveraging public-private partnerships and grants, and partnering with other health systems in the area” to advance that agenda, he said.

Building on those successes is crucial, the CIO said, noting that, while the city’s central IT organization “has been somewhat under-resourced and underserved,” individual agencies need their own authority — because IT is essential to everyone’s mission.

“Which is why, every time we have this provocative discussion with my contemporaries — ‘Should IT be centralized or decentralized?’ my answer to that is ‘Yes,’” Johnson said.

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.