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Maricopa County CIO Ed Winfield on Guiding Tech in a Crisis

As chief information officer of the country’s fourth most populous county, Ed Winfield has had to balance priorities like an ongoing technology refresh with the new curve balls the coronavirus has added to his plate.

Ed Winfield CIO Maricopa County Arizona
David Kidd/Government Technology
Ed Winfield took over as the CIO of the country’s fourth most populous county in January 2017, guiding technology for a workforce of more than 13,000 employees ranging from the sheriff’s department and public health to emergency management and the courts. A significant amount of technology refresh is underway — like an upgrade to the county’s financial management system — but the curve ball that is COVID-19 forced a shakeup of the priority list.

1. How did technology factor into the county’s response to COVID-19?

Our first focus was ensuring we could support a large number of teleworkers. What we did was immediately upgrade our critical network circuits, ordered some additional VPN licenses, and increased our resources on the service desk and the desktop area. We put up simple instructions about how to use VPN, how to get to the HR system, how to set up simultaneous ring on your office phone and so on.

Second, we asked, how are we going to manage and monitor this in real time? We redirected our normal tools to these critical pinch points in our infrastructure — network and conference call utilization — so we could adjust as necessary. And of course we had to do that with all the appropriate security tools and protections.

We also had to react to many situational kinds of things as the crisis was unfolding. We stood up the Joint Operations Center between public health and emergency management. We have representatives from the city of Phoenix, the Red Cross is in there, and we had to stand this up within a few days. We also had to work with the clerk of the board to hold board meetings via webinar. We had to work with our public information office so they could do online press conferences. And now we’re in the third phase, which is to maintain stability so that county departments can effectively conduct business and continue to serve citizens.

2. Are there any lasting technology changes you foresee from the pandemic?

Could we lock in some of these digital or online or process changes that have occurred due to teleworking and social distancing? We’ve seen a large demand for our e-signature platform. Could we get some forms up quickly and start to use that in a greater way? We found a few weak points in some of our online services, so we converted some service counter activities into online and digital forms. The other thing is now the workforce is more familiar with this kind of digital environment, and they can be productive in a telework situation. We’ve also been making a side list of things: When we’re done, we’re going to engage with all the county departments to understand what have they learned and if they have uncovered improvements that they want to lock in. 

3. What are some of your biggest priorities and have they shifted at all lately?

We were working on a number of strategic things to move the county forward, mainly around becoming more digital and providing some governance across the county for things like security. We were doing some ongoing refresh of some of our critical technologies and trying to get rid of some of the technical debt and eliminating obsolete platforms where possible. And then of course security goes through all of that. Most of these projects slowed down or were put on hold during phase one of the response. Now that we’ve moved into more of a steady state, some are moving again, particularly those that have more of a technology focus, while others that require more personal contact or high touch have slowed or stopped.

4. What are some of your key takeaways from the pandemic?

Early on in the crisis, we thought some of the things that we had online, that you could access without logging onto the network, were going to be primary, like Office 365. But the speed with which it happened meant we had to default back to VPN. We were just not going to be able to stand up a complete remote environment without having access to our network. But I think the county has done very well in steering the ship a different way through a very difficult situation. There were no big gaps in people being able to work and having the tools to work. 

Noelle Knell has been the editor of Government Technology magazine for e.Republic since 2015. She has more than two decades of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.