The winners of this year’s Digital Cities Survey from the Center for Digital Government are those making smart investments in technologies from infrastructure and citizen engagement to data storage and cybersecurity.
This past year could be dubbed “the year of the refresh” for the winners of the 2019 Digital Cities Survey, presented by the Center for Digital Government.*
The IT leaders and elected officials of these top cities have braced themselves for the next decade by leveraging vendor solutions, identifying infrastructure upgrades and making government-wide changes to philosophy. Many of these initiatives were implemented during the past year, but other winners have thrived on existing foundations in IT operations.
None of these winning cities wants to be hindered by hindsight, and they share the belief that the user, whether it be a city resident, business owner or passing tourist, should be the guiding factor in the deployment of new or emerging technologies.
About 25 miles from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean sits a city that has fully embraced all that “as-a-service” has to offer. Weston, Fla., only has 10 official city employees who act as contract administrators managing the vendors that interface directly with the public.
Ryan Fernandes, director of Technology Services for the city, said this different style of governance allows elected officials and city staff to more quickly adapt than other contemporary municipalities.
“Initially we really took the time to invest properly in our foundation layers,” Fernandes said. “Unfortunately, a lot of folks inherit systems that are already there and maybe have a lot of what you would call ‘technical debt.’ We were able to start from the ground up, to build our stack layer by layer, fortifying each layer as we got all the way to the top.”
A relatively young city, Weston celebrated its 23rd birthday in 2019. Fernandes said the city’s success has been properly investing in its IT foundation, which has been built out and improved under his purview.
He drew upon previous public-sector experience in larger governments to ensure the selection of vendors was prudent and that each system would be able to communicate with the other, as each layer relies on a different third-party solution.
“One thing that I learned very early on is we’re not being compared with other cities around us or other local governments,” Fernandes said. “We’re being compared to Amazon and Delta Airlines. The things people are using every day in their consumer life, they want that same efficiency in their transactions with local government.”
As a service-oriented municipality, Weston prioritizes staying in line with current trends and paying attention to user needs for both the improvement of internal processes and the ancillary benefit of more user-friendly interactions. For the city to use a new technology, it must have a qualitative or quantitative measurement component so city leaders can gauge its effectiveness.
“It really does start with understanding what you do in terms of providing services to our constituents,” he said.
A city among the oldest in the nation, Lynchburg, Va., is looking toward the future. In 2019, the mayor’s office, City Council and IT busily drafted strategic plans to direct the policies and priorities for the next 20 years.
Director of Information Technology Mike Goetz ensured his IT shop was intimately involved in the city's future as projected in the Downtown 2040 Master Plan and “The Lynchburg Plan,” a policy document undergoing its final review before the City Council.
In preparation for the restoration and upgrade of the city’s downtown infrastructure, IT staff are collaborating with utility providers and public works to efficiently pool construction efforts, such as the installation of new water pipes in conjunction with conduits and fiber-optic cables to facilitate public Wi-Fi and future smart city endeavors.
Lynchburg IT went as far as to craft an in-house system tracking key information about planned public infrastructure projects that loops in public-facing departments, like economic development, to coordinate communications about noteworthy items like road closures, traffic changes and more.
“Until this system came into place it was a piecemeal kind of data sharing approach, and if you didn’t know the right people you might not know what was going on,” Goetz said. “This is not something a citizen or a business would see, but it is extremely helpful internally to share information among these various functional departments.”
The city that borders the world’s largest naval base needs to stay at the forefront of IT best practices and challenges to keep pace with its federal neighbor.
But it’s mainly the city’s residents who have motivated IT modernization efforts at this seaport. CIO Steven DeBerry said Norfolk has shifted to a citizen-centric and connected government throughout his five-year tenure as the head of IT.
“In the last four years we’ve spent a lot of time on rebuilding and refreshing infrastructure, whether it was public safety infrastructure or the computer refresh,” DeBerry said. “I spent a lot of time with metrics in presenting the case and it’s more than refreshing old computers because with new business processes and new business systems, you need faster computing capability.”
The faster internal processes aren’t something the public readily sees, though glimpses can be gleaned from the Norfolk open data portal, which showcases 32 data sets from public safety to the work of local artists.
The data is partially fed by the city’s 311 app, MyNorfolk, deployed over the last year as a way for residents to directly interact with the city to report potholes, water breaks and more. The app launched in October alongside a redesign of the city’s website.
The infrastructure and data sharing pushes are important pillars of the current leadership in city hall. Norfolk is looking to partner with neighboring cities to leverage the city-owned 37-mile fiber ring network with a proposed regional fiber ring that, in theory, would connect the five cities in Hampton Roads metro area, allowing first responders to collaborate more effectively during natural disasters, he said.
“I’m hoping that my legacy would be having rebuilt the city’s IT infrastructure to support future smart city and connectivity initiatives,” DeBerry said.
When Miami's city manager merged the Office of Innovation, the Department of Information Technology and the Office of Strategic Management into the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), it was a gamble. But a little over a year later, the culture shock has subsided, making way for a whole new philosophy for IT projects.
Michael Sarasti, director of DoIT, said the new approach to IT projects revolves around two questions: How is it a better use of data in the city, and is it user-focused? Sarasti said his staff has made the adjustment to a shorter development timeframe, which frees them from long project cycles. The impact, metrics and performance of a solution share equal importance with the problem IT is attempting to fix or refine.
“Data’s got to be at the top of what we do. We’ve got to have clear problem statements, and we’ve got to think about the products that we’re building over the projects that we’re trying to organize,” Sarasti said. “Really embedding those feedback loops. Those things have just become like mantras for us around here.”
The reprioritization in IT has helped reduce an almost-overwhelming number of projects that were dumped on DoIT’s predecessor agencies. The goal of DoIT is to help the city make better and more data-driven decisions, he said.
A byproduct of the reorganization has been increased transparency for the public, city leaders and other departments. New policies have helped streamline the conduits of transparency, such as a multi-departmental effort to extract useful data for the Miami open data portal.
Sarasti said that work is now coming to fruition, and that it's “starting to become a little more habit as opposed to forcing a new philosophy. Focusing on the way we work, I think, has been really impactful.”
Successfully marrying legacy and modern applications is a challenge many cities and even states struggle with, but by building on its IT successes over the years, it’s something San Diego has decided to undertake.
City leaders christened the Digital Strategy Division (DSD) in 2019. DSD is a group charged with standardizing applications so that an improved user experience can be delivered to the city’s residents. CIO Jonathan Behnke said DSD is helping his team with everything from cybersecurity to re-evaluating the application portfolios of each city department.
“As we modernize city systems, an improved user experience is a priority for us and really drives user adoption, provides ease in training and helps us make 11,500 employees more efficient in what they do,” Behnke said. “If you save 11,500 people a minute and a half a day, it adds up pretty quickly over time.”
It’s an under-the-hood tune-up that will provide a concrete plan for agencies to increase productivity and allow them to spend more time on more meaningful work.
DSD also serves as a liaison between the various city departments and IT, he said. As an agency develops a concept and goes through the steps to build it out, DSD is there to help the staff overcome potential barriers.
“They’re a great sounding board for us as we’re considering changes in delivering road maps to city departments,” Behnke said. “It’s a quick feedback loop for us to make adjustments or changes to improve the user experience.”
In response to the mayor’s pledge to repave 1,000 miles of streets by 2020, San Diego IT decided to distill 30 systems into a single enterprise asset management system, creating an improved capability to monitor and collaborate on capital improvement projects, Behnke said.
All these improvements come together in a resident’s ability to use the city’s 311 app, Get it Done, to report a pothole, follow the status of the repair via the San Diego open data portal, and facilitate potential piggybacking on the repair to result in a repaved and upgraded street.
“San Diego has developed a culture of innovation and really taken a data-driven approach to its services,” Behnke said. “All of those things culminated in a lot of successful projects in innovation in the past year.”
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.