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Special Districts Prepare for the Year Ahead

Modernizing systems and strengthening cyber protections are top priorities.

As the new year begins, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) is modernizing technology and hardening protection for critical systems.

The district — which provides water and wastewater services to nearly four million Michigan residents — is implementing new technologies to proactively manage infrastructure maintenance, moving important business systems to the cloud, and strengthening mobile capabilities that let field staff and newly-remote knowledge employees work from anywhere. At the same time, the district is squarely focused on strengthening cybersecurity in an environment where cyber risks are intensifying, especially for critical infrastructure operators.

Today, many special districts find themselves navigating similar terrain. After two years of rapid innovation forced by a global public health crisis, districts face permanent changes in the way they work and deliver services. On the other hand, core missions — in GLWA’s case delivering safe, reliable and high-quality water services — remain the same, and modern technology is increasingly fundamental to meeting those goals.

These are some of the issues covered in the 2022 Special Districts national kickoff event – an on-demand session where special district leaders and industry experts examine priorities and challenges for the year ahead.

Moving to the Cloud

Jeffrey Small, CIO for GLWA, outlined his district’s modernization plans during the event. Projects underway include a new asset management system that will transform how GLWA maintains its sprawling water and wastewater infrastructure, as well as a new program management system to oversee a portfolio of capital projects worth about $1 billion over the next five years.

GLWA also intends to kick off an enterprise ERP deployment that will replace multiple legacy finance and HR applications, says Small.

“All of the projects I’m talking about will leverage SaaS solutions as we continue to increase our cloud presence,” he adds.

At the same time, GLWA is adapting to long-term changes in how its employees work. Although plant operators and field staff are back on site, the organization has a significant number of knowledge workers who continue to work remotely.

“The transition to a hybrid work model or remote-first work model requires us to deliver a consistent, reliable, secure and convenient work experience for our team members as they access data and systems from various devices and locations,” Small says. “So we continue to work on our network security, resiliency and remote connectivity. We’re also building upon our video conferencing platforms and integrating them more fully so they're not standalone systems.”

New Funds for Security

To protect critical infrastructure and technology systems from growing threats, GLWA is exploring how to tap federal grants contained in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to strengthen both physical security and cybersecurity.

“Most of it, of course, is going to go toward improving our critical water and wastewater systems, which are very capital intensive,” Small says. “While we don't know all the specifics yet, we look forward to hopefully leveraging some portion of the funding to prevent breaches.”

Patrick Robinson, associate director for public sector cybersecurity at AT&T, says multi-year security funding available through the IIJA and the earlier American Rescue Plan Act lets special districts address immediate cybersecurity needs and launch longer-term efforts to strengthen cyber defenses.

“The good news is within five years they can completely transform the way they secure their infrastructure and networks,” Robinson said during the Special Districts kickoff event.

He warned that special districts must adopt more modern and proactive cybersecurity capabilities to counteract attackers who increasingly use automation, artificial intelligence and other sophisticated technologies.

Better intergovernmental information sharing — among special districts, cities, counties, states and federal agencies — will help counter growing threats, as will more security training for staff members.

“Educated employees make better decisions,” Robinson says. “We need to focus time and attention on training employees to stop, think and move on when they receive those tempting phishing emails.”

A Unique Opportunity

Dustin Haisler, chief innovation officer for Government Technology, says an array of forces are pushing special districts to modernize technology and adopt innovative approaches.

Internal and external constituents demand these improvements, Haisler said during the kickoff event. District employees expect modern technology tools in the workplace, whether they’re in an office or remote location. And residents want online self-service capabilities, electronic transactions, virtual meetings and more.

Fortunately, new technologies make it easier for districts to meet these demands. Cloud-hosted applications and low-code/no-code development platforms help lower traditional modernization barriers by reducing upfront costs and lessening the need for specialized technology talent, Haisler says. In addition, the current influx of federal funding from the IIJA and earlier pandemic relief programs gives districts an unprecedented chance to meet today’s modernization needs and prepare for the future.

“This funding provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Haisler says, “and many district leaders are using it to reimagine how they operate and deliver services.”