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With New Strategic Plan, Baltimore Begins Comprehensive IT Modernization

Baltimore has hired its inaugural chief of IT human capital and director of digital DevOps, and a chief data officer; and begun to execute on its digital transformation plan.

Having received “unbelievably supportive” public comment earlier this year, the city of Baltimore has moved into the execution phase on its first-ever strategic plan — 2018-2023 Inclusive Digital Transformation Strategic Plan — and is in the formative stages of a technology reorganization that will centralize IT, its tech leader said.

Baltimore’s plan, which has been reviewed and signed off by the city council and city hall, has five major areas of focus, Chief Information Officer Frank Johnson told Government Technology — but “first and foremost, it’s all about the people.”

The city has made three key, hires in recent months in an ongoing drive to bulk up its IT staff. Tracy McKee, the former GIS director for the city of Charleston, S.C., joined Baltimore in February, according to LinkedIn, as its chief data officer and is currently creating the agency’s first-ever civic data analytics strategy.

Jet Lü, Baltimore’s first-ever director of digital DevOps, came to the city in June from General Dynamics Information Technology, where he was program manager for development and DevOps delivery. And at the end of July, Kursten Jackson, the senior director of human resources at Howard County General Hospital, will join the city as its inaugural chief of IT human capital.

As the city’s “first-ever agile lead,” Johnson said Lü will work with McKee and Baltimore’s infrastructure team to forge a framework for enabling a community-based collaboration around development. The CIO said Jackson will “help quarterback” a rebuilding and reimagining of the city’s IT staff “and literally help work with us in partnership to build a tech-focused human capital program.”

“IT projects require leadership and investment or resources. Municipalities don’t pay market rate for talent so we’re competing in the marketplace for talent with one hand tied behind our back. We need an incredibly focused program around tech, baked in the current reality in the market,” Johnson said.

The city’s strategic plan identified five main areas of focus, Johnson said: centralizing IT via the creation of a new org structure; modernizing human resources and financial systems by moving to an enterprise resource planning (ERP)/Software as a Service (SaaS) system; continuing to modernize infrastructure; adopting a “cloud-first, cloud-only” posture at an agency where currently less than 20 percent of workloads are consolidated and virtualized; and designing a “very robust” 10- to 20-year broadband and communication plan.

Johnson said conversations with department heads about the consolidation and org design plan have begun and the process is “well underway,” but noted the agency will also work with partners and philanthropists to identify opportunities “where they can help underwrite and invest.” He said finding one integrated platform for HR and finance will be one of the city’s “biggest undertakings” for at least two years, but will maximize efficiency for an agency that lacks the staffing and ability “to roll our own and/or do best of breed” — picking, for example, one vendor for HR and another for payroll.

“Right now, we’re staffing up and building a city-based project management team. We’re through [the] initial RFI process and within this calendar year we’re going to pick a technology and pick a partner,” the CIO said, referring to doing organizational change management and reimagining the HR and finance processes.

The city currently has 100 to 150 ongoing IT projects, the CIO said, but slightly further down its priorities list are two larger endeavors that will likely yield significant enhancements in how residents connect with their government. The Baltimore Tech Center will represent a large capital cost; but could potentially house not just a technology lab but also a new network operations center and an integrated 911 and 311 call center. A new internal- and external-facing data and analytics hub is also planned, but could be virtual or coordinated through a university partnership, said Johnson, who characterized it as possibly a combination of city and partner assets.

The plan also highlights the need to “change the IT culture and improve customer service,” and with that in mind, the city very intentionally renamed the Mayor’s Office of Information & Technology” as the Baltimore City Office of Information & Technology (BCIT). The CIO said the shift is intended to emphasize its role in working for the community and toward citizen engagement, transparency and open government.

“We’re not in the tech business. We’re in the people business. We need to dial up the contrast on soft skills, even though we’re a tech department,” said Johnson, who added that the agency is rewriting some position descriptions to emphasize soft skills like leadership, collaboration and a can-do attitude.

Theo Douglas is news editor for Government Technology. He was previously assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news.