Phil Bertolini Set the Excellence Standard for County CIOs

Oakland County, Mich.’s technology leader for 18+ years retired at the end of August. Bertolini is globally recognized a top local government CIO. Here, we get a glimpse of what we can learn from his experience.

by / September 14, 2019
Phil Bertolini, former CIO/Deputy County Executive, Oakland County Michigan

Back in the days of when Teri Takai was Michigan CIO, and I was Michigan’s CISO, our state enterprise technology team was introduced to a smart, talented, passionate local government CIO from Oakland County with countless new ideas on offering government services.

Phil Bertolini’s natural leadership abilities, engaging approach to public speaking and vision for all types of public- and private-sector partnerships were clearly innovative. Mr. Bertolini’s resume was solid, and his understanding of the business of government was absolutely clear.

What we didn’t know at the time was the breadth, depth and longevity of the excellence in government service that was about to begin under Phil Bertolini’s years as deputy county executive and CIO of Oakland County.

Professional Background on Phil Bertolini

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson appointed Phil Bertolini as deputy county executive/CIO for Oakland County in January 2005. Prior to that, Bertolini served as Oakland County’s director of Information Technology. He began his career with Oakland County in 1988 with the Equalization Division. Bertolini recently retired after 31 years of public service.

Bertolini is a vocal advocate for cloud and enterprise solutions in government, cross-boundary resource sharing, and inter-jurisdictional cooperation. He has overseen the development of unique gov tech programs such as the G2G Cloud Solutions Initiative, the G2G Marketplace, the Cyber Security Assessment for Everyone (CySAFE) initiative, the GeoVision Assessment, and the TechDebtCheck Assessment.

He has also created successful models that can be implemented by other governments interested in improving operations while containing costs. Bertolini has traveled extensively to speak about eGovernment best practices and has authored a growing collection of resources to help other organizations modernize IT within today’s rapidly changing technology landscape. He has promoted his philosophy of “Build it once, pay for it once, and everybody benefits” to many other government agencies, including those within the U.S. and others as far off as Australia and Dubai.

You can find more information about Oakland County's initiatives at www.oakgov.com, www.g2gcloud.com and www.g2gmarket.com.

Bertolini received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Telecommunications from Michigan State University. He resides in Oakland County with his wife and two children.

Some of Phil Bertolini’s professional awards over the past decade include:

  • Oakland County placed first in the 2014 Best of the Web County Portal rankings, a nationwide survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government*
  • Oakland County, in partnership with four other SE Michigan counties and the State of Michigan, received the 2014 Cyber Security Leadership & Innovation Award for the CySAFE initiative, an award provided by the Center for Digital Government for counties nationwide
  • Honored by Crain's Detroit Business as CIO of the Year for 2013
  • Honored by the President Obama White House as a Champion of Change for 2012
  • Honored as the 2010 Outstanding Alumni for the College of Communications, Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University
  • Vice president of the Communications, Arts and Sciences Alumni Board at Michigan State University
  • Member of the Harvard Policy Group for Network-Enabled Services and Government at Harvard University

From my perspective, this wealth of technology leadership experience in government makes Phil a fantastic resource for other local government business and technology executives and managers who are striving to deliver innovative solutions to residents. Phil's demonstrated mix of strategic vision and pragmatic program implementations offer potential benefits for numerous other leaders to follow. In order to provide some examples, Phil agreed to this in-depth interview offered next.  

Exclusive Interview Between Dan Lohrmann and Phil Bertolini

Dan Lohrmann (DL): You’ve been in Oakland County Government since 1988, what are some of your best memories?

Phil Bertolini (PB): There are so many memories over 31 years to choose from. I have met and worked with some incredible people over my career. From day one, I knew I would be part of something more than a team, a family. One of my most favorite memories was my very first day on the job as an entry-level Real Property Appraiser in the Equalization Division, the property tax assessor function. I remember walking in as a 25-year-old with my eyes wide open wondering what this new life experience would bring. My career had begun, and I never knew where it would lead.

I remember the day in 2000 when our County Executive L. Brooks Patterson asked me to become his director of Information Technology. I sat there and explained that I did not have a deep technical background and he responded that he wanted someone to get the people to use the technologies we build for them. I have been working those words ever since in my role as deputy county executive/CIO.

I remember the early days at the Information Technology Department trying to grasp what was in front of me. The team was extremely talented, and they made me feel at home. It was like drinking from a fire hose of information but two people, Janette McKenna and Scott Oppmann, worked tirelessly with me to make sure I was able to lead effectively. These two, family for sure, were there to help build what I believe is the best technology team in the country.

I remember working hard to launch the G2G Cloud Solutions and G2G Marketplace initiatives with Jim Taylor. We were launching the ability to deliver cost effective eCommerce solutions while also launching a free shared portal for all public sector professionals nationwide. The feeling of truly helping people expanded outside of our borders in Michigan to stretch across the nation. Helping people took on a whole new meaning.

Most of all, I will remember the incredible people that I worked with for 31 years. They were always there to ensure that our services were the best they could be. I will remember my leadership, especially our County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Chief Deputy County Executive Jerry Poisson, Deputy County Executive Bob Daddow and Deputy County Executive Laurie Van Pelt. We worked our fingers to the bone to shape the future of our county and I am honored to have been on their team. Lastly, I will remember the sacrifices my family made to make sure I was on the frontline where I needed to be. My wife Kathleen and my sons Brad and Steve were at my side for everything without a single complaint.

DL: What people / process / technology changes are most striking over the past three decades? 

PB: 31 years is a long time for change to happen. The technology world shifts so fast that our experiences have been greatly enhanced by the rapid pace of change. In 1988 we were still using dumb terminals for mainframe systems. Those green screens were all we knew. That world shifted fast in the early 90s with the advent of personal computing. Those first PCs were very basic but the ability to do ad hoc analysis began to shift our world.

I believe that the greatest shift over my 31 years is how people-centric technology has become. Everything today is about the human experience instead of a technical platform. When technology started to shift it was more about the limitations of the platforms versus today, where it is the unlimited ability of humans using technology as a tool. The human factor is where I believe I was most effective. Not having a deep knowledge of the intricacies of certain technologies allows me to focus on the human impact of government processes aided by quality technology tools. Technology is not a magic wand; it is a necessary functional tool for success.

Technology will continue to exponentially change, and governments will struggle to keep up. There are technologies that can do just about anything for anyone today. The people embracing those technologies will make the difference.

DL: You have a long list of awards and accomplishments (see list above). What has been the secret of your success in keeping Oakland County as a national leader in local government tech?

PB: What is the secret of OUR success? The team, the team, the team. Our county executive always pressed that the most important thing you can do as a leader is to build the best team possible around you. Our success stems from that very philosophy. Everyone knows that today’s competitive environment makes it difficult to recruit and retain quality people. Our team has made that our No. 1 priority right alongside cybersecurity.

I have always been a person who knows what I don’t know. Finding the right people has been my main mission, knowing full well that they will know so much more about technology. My job was to make sure we maximized our technology investments, bringing huge operational benefits to our organization. When innovations were brought to the table, our team embraced them. We were never afraid to push the envelope and in some instances we failed. Having the ability to fail and move on was a hallmark of our leadership philosophy. As our county executive always said, “If you are not failing, you are not trying.”

One last thought here, the work that we have done has been a passion for me. I have been blessed to work so closely with so many talented people. We are a national leader because we pressed for the future at every turn. We have been recognized over the years because we did the right things for the people we serve.

DL: How has your CIO role changed over the past two decades? What were the biggest challenges you faced and needed to overcome?

PB: I believe the biggest challenges over my years as CIO all center around the people aspect of technology. Some business units of government are at different levels of how they adopt technology. The challenge we faced was how to build enterprise technologies knowing that some will get it and others will not. As the CIO, my main function was to help the organization navigate these tough waters while keeping an eye on what is next.

I believe the CIO has become more of an integral role in the overall leadership of government. Technology professionals spend an incredible amount of time working closely with the operational teams to learn their business. This on-the-job learning provides a more solid foundation to build enabling technologies on. Staffing the technology team with business-minded technology professionals is something that has shifted over the years. The CIO must embrace that shift or get left behind by the business.

DL: How has cybersecurity grown in significance?

PB: Where do I begin here. The attacks are coming at an unmanageable pace. Cyberattackers find new ways everyday on how to make our lives more difficult. The people demand that we keep their data safe in an environment where we struggle to find quality security professionals. To simply answer the question, cybersecurity has grown in significance to the highest level of concern and priority. We, as government officials, can no longer put our head in the sand. Just like the words from the movie Poltergeist, “They’re here!”

I believe that cybersecurity is a crisis for governments today. The recent ransomware attacks have exposed government’s unprotected doorways. All levels of government must come together to battle this now knowing full well that the battles will never end.

DL: As you built your team, there were obviously staff members coming and going. You also worked for different leaders. How did you approach those relationship changes?

PB: Technology is full of the newer generation of customer relationship managers or CRMs. This is a skill that has evolved as the technology operations have become more integral to the organization as a whole. People do come and go from the team and we must be better at accepting the new generations of team members. I have always seen myself as a relationship builder because I knew that our success was dependent upon the acceptance of those we served.

I will admit that the changing generations have perplexed me at times. Relating to the new thoughts of the younger team has required me to seek guidance form any source I could find. People always say that the team must conform to the leader. I do not believe in that philosophy. I believe that the team and the leader must find that middle ground that ensures the optimal productivity. Leaders must learn too!

DL: You built amazing partnerships. What was your approach to that art? I know it is dangerous to name just a few, but any people or organizations in particular that you want to mention? 

PB: Partnerships are essential to success in the world of gov tech. There are numerous private-sector partners that have made our team so successful. I will not name them here as I do not want to leave anyone out. Working together, public and private sector, is the only way to be effective and successful.

I do want to mention, gov tech professionals have incredible assets available to them from networking with their peers to quality learning opportunities. Here in Michigan, we have the MiGMIS group where technology professionals from across the state can work with each other collaboratively to get the job done. Nationally, we have the incredible team at e.Republic that provides Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government and the Digital Communities initiative. These massive resources are at our fingertips and connect us to expertise from every walk of government. Each year they also provide the Michigan Digital Government Summit that brings together over 500 professionals to learn and collaborate. My peers in gov tech should take full advantage of these resources to be successful.

My last piece of advice: partner with everyone you can. Grab hold of every resource you can find. Never go it alone.

DL: What are you most proud of during your time as CIO?

PB: My overly simple answer is that I was able to help people by being part of an incredible team!

DL: What are the biggest challenges that you see CIOs facing over the next decade in the 2020s? Any advice for local government CIOs?

PB: The biggest challenges facing CIOs are numerous. Technology will continue to change at an incredible rate. Cybersecurity will get more difficult over time. The ability to find good people will continue to be a struggle. Funding for technology will continue to be limited. The consumer/customer will become more technologically capable, requiring more services to be delivered digitally. These statements appear to be negative but there are positive solutions. Everything mentioned here can be successfully tackled by sharing services and partnering with everyone you can.

My advice to local government CIOs: don’t go it alone. Find your partners, your peers, your thought leaders, your champions, and your team. Remember, it is all about the people!

DL: Is there anything else you would like to say?

PB: I have loved my 31 years of government service and as you can tell by my answers, I love my team, or should I say my family. Anyone who enters or stays in public service must put the needs of the people first and do everything they can to help them. For 31 years I served the people of Oakland County, Mich., and I am blessed for it. Thank you.

Final Thoughts

The moment I heard that Phil was retiring from Oakland County, I immediately reached out to him to ask for this interview. He is such an incredible person, with a very positive attitude with great skills and a “get it done” mentality that is SO NEEDED in government.

I did not know, until this week, that Phil will be joining Teri Takai to work at eRepublic’s Center for Digital Government, which was announced this past week (after my interview was completed). It is great to see him move to a role where he can help other local governments in the U.S. (and around the world) in their important missions.

I am a big believer in positive technology leadership role models and pointing to government leaders who are making a positive impact every day.

In my opinion, Phil Bertolini offers an outstanding example of gov tech leadership excellence throughout his career.  

I don’t know of a better example to offer for local governments CIOs to follow.  

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

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