Stay informed

2019 Midwest Recap (Chicago)


Important insights from the final Special Districts Summit of this year.

News Staff / September 25, 2019

The Midwest Special Districts Summit in Chicago drew 85 officials from 51 districts for a day of insight, analysis and best practices around critical leadership issues. More than a dozen panelists and speakers tackled everything from protecting sensitive data to attracting talent and enhancing digital services. Here are some highlights from the Sept. 18 event, the last of five Special Districts Summits for 2019:

Cybersecurity will get harder – The combination of IoT-connected infrastructure and increasingly sophisticated attacks will make cybersecurity an even bigger challenge for special district leaders in the coming years, said Government Technology Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler, in the summit’s future-ready keynote.

Social engineering attacks are on the rise, he said, pointing to a recent rash of incidents where attackers posing as contractors fooled agencies into making large payments. In addition, smart infrastructure is opening new vulnerabilities -- and Haisler even expects intelligent vehicles to become ransomware targets.

Combating these threats demands greater commitment to cybersecurity across organizations, said Haisler. “All of our public sector surveys say cybersecurity is the number one priority across all levels of government, but it’s still only getting about 2 percent of IT budgets on average.”

He said districts must adopt a risk management approach that treats cybersecurity as a threat to critical business functions. “Cybersecurity needs to be a function of how we do things,” Haisler said. “It’s not just the CIO’s job -- it’s everyone’s job.”

Special districts are in the crosshairs – AT&T’s David Leach said special districts are becoming bigger targets for cyber crooks as they automate functions and collect and store more data. At the same time, powerful software weapons are becoming readily available to attackers.

“The tools are easy to get on the dark web. You can basically buy an attack with bitcoin,” said Leach, an AT&T principal architect.

He joined Antonio Enriquez, a cybersecurity advisor with the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), for a session explaining how special districts can improve their cybersecurity posture. Both Leach and Enriquez pointed to the growing need for districts to understand and mitigate security vulnerabilities.

“It’s really a policy and risk management issue,” said Leach. “You need to figure out which data is most critical and then how you are going to protect it.”

Districts can start that process with free vulnerability scans from CISA, said Enriquez. “We provide a report on what we find – and we can scan your systems on a scheduled basis to spot trends and check for vulnerabilities from emerging threats.”

CISA also offers free cyber resiliency reviews, which evaluate an organization’s operational resiliency and cybersecurity practices across 10 domains, and other services to help special districts strengthen security protection.

Recruiting and retaining employees demands creativity – As competition for talent heats up, special districts need to think differently about hiring and engaging employees. Leaders from two Chicago-area park districts said they’ve taken a number of steps – including raising salaries, loosening up vacation day policies, providing better quality laptops and smartphones, and offering free access to golf courses and other park facilities – to become more attractive to employers.

“We’re competing more than ever with the private sector,” said Dustin Sneath, superintendent of information technology for the Elk Grove Park District, during a session on building future workforces.

Both Sneath and fellow panelist Jeff Nehila, executive director of the Deerfield Park District, said educational opportunities are a powerful tool to keep employees happy. “It’s good to invest in your staff -- and make sure that your people see that your investing,” said Nehila. “Encourage them to continue their education. Budget for it. It’s a great benefit and people like it.”

Nehila also encouraged districts to create opportunities for promotion and show them visually on organizational charts. “Think about establishing deputy positions to create a career path,” he said. “Type A personalities will be looking to move to the next box and there needs to be a realistic path.”

Users want a better experience – Consumerization of technology is ramping up citizen expectations for digital services from public agencies. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is responding by launching new mobile apps – including a new incident reporting tool for citizens – and offering more electronic forms online, said John Sudduth, the district’s director of information technology.

He said mobility has become an important strategy to engage and serve citizens. “What’s happened is the smartphone has become the PC. It’s truly a personal computer.”

The trend is impacting the district’s internal users too, added Sudduth. “Our employees want technology they can just pick up and use without intensive training. As government IT leaders, we need to do a better job of providing tools that all of our constituents can use intuitively.”

Among the biggest challenges to modernization, said Sudduth, are tight finances and lengthy government procurement cycles. “Having a strategy and being in it for the long haul are important because you’re going to live with that technology for a long time.”

AT&T Technical Sales Director Brandt Washington, who joined Sudduth for a summit session on enhancing customer experience, recommends that district leaders consult with diverse sources before choosing technology solutions.

“You really need to bring in partners who are outside of your central group to get a broad perspective,” he said. “Talk to other jurisdictions, industry and maybe university research departments to make sure you’re making smart long-term investments.”

FirstNet strengthens communications resiliency -- Bruce Moeller, former fire chief and city manager of Sunrise, Fla., had been on the job less than 60 days when Hurricane Andrew slammed into the state’s east coast in 1992. He went on to manage responses to multiple other large-scale emergencies, including the 1996 crash of ValueJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In these events and others, special districts were an important piece of the response, Moeller said. Special districts provided buses to transport evacuees, sports facilities to serve as distribution centers, library buildings for sleeping quarters, expertise to mitigate environmental impact and more.

“In every emergency event I’ve been involved with, I needed to contact special districts and involve them,” he said. “Almost every special district has a role to play.”

Moeller urged special district leaders to join FirstNet, the dedicated national communications network for first responders, to ensure they can reliably communicate with other agencies during a disaster. Many special districts qualify for FirstNet as extended primary responders under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) framework, he said.

FirstNet service can be added to standard smartphones carried by district employees, giving them access to resilient communications capabilities when an emergency occurs.

“Prepare your organization for the unknown event looming around the corner,” he told summit attendees. “Make sure you have the ability to communicate in a crisis.”

GovTech Special Districts Program Report.

Download Now

Sign-up for the newsletter.

Platforms & Programs