Finding 75 Park Place, the location of the offices for the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), can be a bit tricky if you're not familiar with Lower Manhattan. Once you get below 14th Street, the rhythmic grid of Midtown gives way to a less logical, more European warren of narrow streets. Names like Fulton, Vesey and Barclay replace the numbers that make up most of Manhattan's street system. Just a few blocks from Park Place resides the vast, gaping hole that was once the World Trade Center. One-way streets suddenly end, while other streets run at odd diagonals, creating short blocks where towering skyscrapers sit. At first, the effect is disorienting.

The building at Park Place is nondescript, unlike some of the more historic city buildings that sit not too far away. What it lacks in grandeur, 75 Park Place makes up for in IT. More specifically, it's where the brain trust for the nation's largest municipal IT operation resides.

Walk through the large office layout and you're likely to see many familiar faces, including longtime city IT staffer Ron Bergmann, who is now DoITT's first deputy commissioner.

But the new commissioner and CIO is an unfamiliar figure. Paul Cosgrave took over less than a year ago, shortly after Mayor Michael Bloomberg's successful re-election bid. He is new to New York City and to local government. From 1999 to 2001, Cosgrave was CIO of the IRS during its Y2K conversion and the introduction of online taxpayer services -- two rather challenging IT projects for an agency that received black marks in the past for its technology modernization efforts.

Cosgrave, who had extensive IT experience in the private sector before working for the federal government, returned to the private sector once again where he served as executive vice president of Crown Consulting Inc., an IT consulting firm.

But in 2006, Bloomberg snatched Cosgrave to guide DoITT through strategic changes that would coincide with the mayor's own vision for New York during his second term. Some of those changes go to the very core of IT's role in the public sector today. If Cosgrave executes the plan for Bloomberg -- who built a financial and media empire partly on his acute understanding of IT's value -- he will help move New York closer to being the premier knowledge capital on the big-city global stage, which includes places like London, Paris and Shanghai.

He has his work cut out for him, however. And time is literally ticking. A clock in the mayor's office is counting down the days remaining in Bloomberg's administration. Cosgrave and others only have until the clock strikes "1" to execute Bloomberg's strategic vision.

 
Two-Phased Plan
Bloomberg's second-term themes include transparency, accountability and accessibility, which he wants to embed into the delivery of government services. "We're structuring everything we do to align IT with those themes and to deliver a much more customer service-oriented government," Cosgrave said.

Such an alignment calls for change, and you can't make fundamental change without a strategic plan.

So last year, after Cosgrave took over DoITT, he initiated a two-phase plan, starting with DoITT's structural and governance issues. "We did this because there weren't any good governance processes in place as far as managing things on a more citywide basis," he said. "We're a highly federated model here in the city. For a lot of reasons, however, we're moving toward a more centralized model."

Those reasons include a civil service system that's out of step with IT needs, and the inability to attract and retain workers on a municipal salary when skilled personnel can easily move to Wall Street and make lots of money. As a result, city agencies are battling each other for IT talent. But where others see a problem, Cosgrave sees an opportunity.

DoITT has always been a utility for the city, running wired and now wireless networks for the city, but now the agency is adding more services to its menu, such as help desk services, e-mail services and more, Cosgrave said. "On the operations side, you are seeing more and more agencies having us do these things for them."

With a greater emphasis on IT management, Cosgrave initiated a portfolio-management process for the first time. Using his experience working in the federal sector where streamlined IT approaches are common, DoITT is closely engaged with New York's Office of Management and Budget to align applications with what the mayor wants to accomplish. "DoITT has never looked across the city in terms of a portfolio of things we're doing," he said. "So we're trying to put a process in place."

The second phase of the strategic plan is to build a road map for what DoITT will do over the next 1,000 days. As Cosgrave pointed out, tight deadlines for IT projects aren't new in New York City. Bloomberg's first mayoral campaign focused on a centralized 311 hotline for the city's more than 7.5 million residents. "[Bloomberg] had that up and running within a year of his being elected," Cosgrave said, "and it completely changed how the city operates."

 

Connecting with Community Boards
The impact of 311 on New York City's services and IT management has been profound. It centralized the city's customer service and call-taking functions. In turn, the city now makes public the types of calls it receives and how it responds to those calls. It fully reflects the mayor's themes of transparency, accountability and accessibility.

But IT centralization has its limits in government. Few jurisdictions at the state and local levels have achieved true centralization. In states such as Virginia and Michigan, where the governors practically mandated centralization, success has never been outright. Small agencies with little or no IT staff are willing partners in a centralization effort. That's not so with the big agencies, which typically have their own IT staffs that sometimes rival the size and scope of the jurisdiction's IT department.

Still, Cosgrave is betting on a citywide strategy using IT to deliver on the mayor's vision. "I'm working on a lot of committees and trying to manage things on a more citywide basis," he said. DoITT has also added the position of chief technology officer to provide senior leadership for enterprise architecture, strategic planning and portfolio management.

One of the places where Cosgrave has been spending more time is the City Council chambers. So far, Cosgrave has had a positive impact there, and with one council member in particular. Gale Brewer, a Democrat who represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan and has been a critic of past IT policies, had nothing but praise for the freshman CIO, especially for his work in making 311 data reports available to community groups.

"Cosgrave closed the loop regarding 311 follow-up," Brewer said. "Nobody did that before. And that's a lot of work because it involves 59 public community boards."

 
Rise of the Networked City
New York City's 311 service has had a major impact on city government. "It has changed the way agencies have to deal with the public, and it has cast the CIO into a role most don't ever face," Cosgrave said. The call center service, which is run by DoITT, has thrust the CIO into a much more public-facing position than most government IT executives are used to.

As Brewer pointed out, Cosgrave meets with the community boards to discuss how these groups can reach out to citizens based on the queries and complaints received by 311. For example, anyone who has a heating problem calls the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Each year, the department receives 500,000 calls relating to heating emergencies. Thanks to 311, that number has grown. Because so many of the calls are made by immigrants, many of whom don't speak English, Cosgrave must ensure his callers can field calls in 170 different languages -- not your typical IT issue.

And starting this year, 311 becomes enhanced 311 (E311) in New York City, when 211 human service calls are integrated into the call-center structure. Working with groups like the United Way and DoITT, the city's health and human services agency is now partnering with the nonprofit community to deliver services. The unique partnership is the beginning of a new trend in how government works, according to experts.

In Governing by Network, authors William Eggers and Stephen Goldsmith discuss how the rise of IT is enabling local governments to weave together solutions involving agencies and nonprofits, and then deliver the solutions to community groups, as New York is beginning to do. The challenge, according to Eggers and Goldsmith, is managing these networks because governmental systems are designed to work in a hierarchal -- and not a networked -- model of government.

Cosgrave said he realizes the enormity of what lies ahead for E311. "It's incredible how many different agencies get involved in these processes," he said, "so trying to streamline these things into an electronic format versus a paper process is a big challenge."

Yet Cosgrave's most time-consuming work involves public safety. At the top of the list: replacing the city's 911 system. This requires collocating police and fire in one building so calls can be handled uniformly. As the technology provider, DoITT runs the program, which means acting as facilitator, resolving various structural, process and cultural issues between the two agencies.

The city is also installing a significant public safety wireless network. The plan calls for a service-oriented architecture, so that services can ride on the network in a logical way. One example will let the fire department retrieve images of a building located at the address of the fire.

As Cosgrave points out, the feature sounds great. The challenge, however, is how to structure and process those requests so the data moves logically and doesn't complicate the delivery of other types of emergency information over the wireless network.

 
Leaving Tradition Behind
Cosgrave says his philosophy as a CIO is simple.

"It's about people and processes. Technology is last. Dealing with people is paramount."

But as New York moves from its traditional hierarchical system of distributing services to one where services are assembled horizontally and delivered at the community level, the business process rises in importance.

"I spend a lot of time on business process change," he admitted. "How do we take a bureaucracy that has traditionally thought of things in terms of agency-by-agency and change that model and think about it in terms of the constituent?"

It's a question many CIOs are pondering these days. Not surprisingly, many eyes will be on New York City to see how it handles this question over the next 1,000 days.

 

Tod Newcombe is the editor of Government Technology's Public CIO.

 

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.