4 Takeaways from the Special Districts Summit West
More than 100 officials representing nearly 60 special districts attended the Special Districts Summit West on May 30. The day-long meeting, the first of five regional Special Districts Summits scheduled for 2019, covered issues ranging from future readiness and effective leadership to data analytics and cybersecurity. In all, more than a dozen speakers and panelists shared insights and advice at the event.
Here are four takeaways:
The future is arriving faster than ever before: Keynote speaker Christina “C.K.” Kerley said the confluence of mobility, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) is creating a modern-day Renaissance. Kerley, a futurist and innovation specialist, said the mainstreaming of these technologies is rapidly triggering changes that will impact special district leaders.
For instance, she said human employees increasingly will partner with smart machines and software. Robots won’t take human jobs, they’ll optimize workforces. Humans will continue to do what they do best – apply strategy, innovation and experience to solving problems and delivering services – while machines will move heavy objects, crunch numbers and grind through repetitive processes. These “cobot” workforces will make special districts more efficient and more effective for constituents.
AI will become ubiquitous, she added. Already, most new software applications include some form of AI, said Kerley, up from just 1 percent in 2015. Faster and cheaper computing power will enable special districts to use sophisticated AI for myriad tasks, including improving performance of critical systems, strengthening cybersecurity protection, and safeguarding energy and water supplies.
Organizations must prepare for these trends – which includes gearing up for growing demands for data capacity and network bandwidth, as well as upskilling and reskilling employees – in order to succeed.
“We know change is occurring faster than ever,” Kerley said, “and it will never, ever be slow again.”
Crisis generates opportunity: Sandra Bobek’s first day as CIO of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System in 2012 included a hard drive failure in a storage array that caused the district to lose terabytes of important data. Bobek used the crash to drive home the need for IT investment and modernization.
“Back then, IT didn’t have much visibility with management. We were located in the bus yard, not the corporate office,” she said. “The staff was buying used network switches from eBay. There were no server replacements. We were in a bad place.”
The equipment failure became the catalyst for change, however, leading to server modernization and infrastructure upgrades that shored up the district’s technology foundation, according to Bobek. “That incident opened lots of people’s eyes to technology and the role it plays.”
On the heels of infrastructure modernization, the district also began strengthening its cyber defenses, which led to the recent creation of an information security manager position.
“In 2018, we really got the conversation going around cybersecurity,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to convince our c-level leadership that this is a people and process problem, not an IT issue. That’s well understood now.”
Skills gaps can sometimes be filled internally: Numerous special district leaders point to talent shortages as a significant and ongoing challenge. Many districts struggle to attract and retain the employees they need, particularly in specialized positions.
“Finding the right talent is probably the biggest challenge we have in IT right now,” said Bill Mao, CIO for the Orange County (Calif.) Transportation Authority. “Cybersecurity and data analytics are two of our most sought-after skills.”
To address the analytics gap, the authority has been upskilling existing employees to use data tools. For instance, one of the authority’s business analysts recently transferred to Mao’s IT team and was trained on data visualization software. In addition, the IT group is training employees in other departments to use reporting tools, enabling them to produce their own data reports.
The approach helps Mao fill the need for the need for data analysts who also understand the authority’s business.
“The technology is trainable,” Mao said. “But the business has to be learned over time.”
Infrastructure replacement requires early planning: When the Irvine Ranch Water District was created in 1961, its founders established an infrastructure replacement fund which customers pay into monthly. That forward-thinking move has paid off numerous times already, said Tony Mossbarger, director of administrative services for the district, which serves 380,000 residential customers in Orange County, Calif.
“We’ve used the fund to replace some of the early infrastructure,” he said. “It puts us in a good position to modernize as needed – without hitting our ratepayers with a big bill.”
In addition to replacing traditional infrastructure, the district also uses the fund to modernize IT systems. Mossbarger credits the district’s five-member board of directors with both protecting the fund and understanding that technology infrastructure needs modernization and maintenance just like other assets.
“I’ve been very upfront with them about how IT requires care and feeding,” he said. “It’s not a one-time cost. It needs to be upgraded over time – similar to our other systems.”
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