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California Tech Leaders Share Community Engagement Lessons

Bay Area tech officials shared their insights about the changes and challenges facing government IT shops caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to engage with those they serve emerged as a common thread.

From left, Liza Massey, Marin County chief information officer, Khaled Tawfik, San Jose CIO and Rob Lloyd, San Jose deputy city manager, discuss “Bits & Bytes – Solving Complex Problems by Listening Hard” Aug. 25 at the Bay Area Digital Government Summit in Foster City.
Theo Douglas / Industry Insider — California
Maintaining close connections among departments, organizations and communities will be vital to using IT effectively as governments move beyond the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic and technologists’ roles evolve, officials said recently.

Their examination of what the future holds for IT and how recent historic events have permanently changed gov tech and innovation came during a discussion of “Bits & Bytes – Solving Complex Problems by Listening Hard,” Thursday at the Bay Area Digital Government Summit* in Foster City. Participants Rob Lloyd, San Jose deputy city manager; Liza Massey, Marin County chief information officer; and Khaled Tawfik, San Jose CIO, looked at how they’ve been successful to date and what the future holds. Among the takeaways:

  • The clarity that came from navigating the “hard time that we’ve all been through together,” Lloyd said, “is that our communities, our cities, our counties, see more than ever before what opportunity looks like.” The former San Jose CIO called this a “once in a career” opportunity to use one-time investments to recast government services — with important areas of guidance. Lloyd challenged audience members to “really start with seeing the people” who are out there and who may need answers or help; to amass the resources to accomplish tasks or projects not just once but “into the future – because once is nothing, right?” And he called on those present to forge the partnerships they will need to continue this work.
  • Human-centered design, Massey said, has an incredibly high value while it may not always be easy to accomplish. Marin County is in the process of redesigning its website, and “our residents are very vocal and they want to be involved.” Internally, officials are working with every county department on the project but externally, they’re connecting – in part via an executive steering committee – with the county’s most interested members of the public. And, the CIO said, that’s as it should be. “If you don’t take the time to get residents involved, if you think it takes too long, often it’s going to take longer by not involving them,” Massy said. “Thirty-three years in the business, I’ve seen some huge public backlash to your websites designs when they didn’t involve the public and then you go back and redesign.”
  • On how to connect with residents, Tawfik suggested following the platinum rule – treat others the way they want to be treated. “The same thing applies to how we service our public and how we provide that service in a way that everybody can ... appreciate it, can access it, can receive it, can interpret it and therefore the value gets expanded significantly,” he said. “So how do we do that? Understand community, what they’re looking for. Engage in a way to understand what’s important to them.” Equity, the CIO said, is close to officials’ hearts; and with that in mind, they have created an “equity atlas” identifying underserved communities and serving as a cross-reference point to determine whether service requests are coming equally from all parts of the city; and if not, what is being done to ensure residents can see the data and get access to services.
  • Asked what IT’s next five to 10 years hold, panelists took differing focuses in their responses. Massey acknowledged technology will continue to change “forever and ever,” but highlighted her own memorable work in disaster relief to point out a development for staffers themselves. “I just think the roles, not just of the IT leader but the employees themselves, have evolved and are going to continue to evolve,” she said. “I think that everyone in the department understands now there’s a role beyond the technology, and that’s OK.” Tawfik examined the changing role of technology shops themselves, “from IT to business technology” noting that COVID-19 accelerated that transformation as teams were called on not just to provide laptops but automations and functions like digital signatures. “That was really the point that we started to prove to them that ‘Hey, we can really help you with your business challenges because now we can automate things, we can digitize things, we can do things for you,’” he said. “I think the momentum is going to continue to be in that direction; we’re not going back.”

*This article was originally published by Industry Insider - California, Government Technology's sister publication.
Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.