With New York state on “PAUSE,” local government IT departments have been in high gear ensuring that local governments are “open” for business and serving their communities.
Editor’s note: The Center for Technology in Government, at the University at Albany, State University of New York (CTG UAlbany) has a 26-year history of working with public officials throughout the United States and around the world. In their role as advisers to the NYS Local Government IT Directors Association (NYSLGITDA), the NYS City CIO Workgroup and the Digital Towpath Cooperative (DTC), CTG asked a group of county and city IT leaders to share some of their experiences and insights from the last several weeks and to offer some thoughts on the future. This article is the first in a series that will report on the COVID-19 response through the eyes of local government IT.
In a span of three days, from March 18-20, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo went from reducing the state’s in-person government workforce by 50 percent to issuing a PAUSE (Policy that Assures the Uniform Safety of Everyone) executive order that required all non-essential businesses to close and non-essential government personnel to work at home. In short, government had to close but remain open.
This is no easy feat.
Keeping local government open in this unique fashion fell largely to the information technology professionals. Since the order was issued, public servants have been center stage in keeping cities, counties and towns open and ensuring continuity of operations.
Each of these individuals have a story to tell.
Marguerite Bierne, CIO of Westchester County, the home of New Rochelle, and the first county in the United States to have a containment zone declared, characterized her IT professionals in this way: “We are the team that helps the helpers. Our job is to support everyone so we can get through this together. But we are no different than other local government IT departments around the state; we rise to the challenges; it is just what we do.”
Local government IT professionals are typically charged with supporting the entire spectrum of local departments. In New York, this includes public health, public safety, governance, public works, elections and many more government functions. Their work requires a unique combination of a bird’s-eye view of the enterprise and a process-level understanding of every program and service provided by their government. They must be strategic and tactical and understand a wide range of public policy issues and technologies. They must be innovative, pragmatic and adaptive because sometimes the money they need to upgrade a system or buy a new one must instead go to fund critical public works investments or more public safety personnel.
As part of their regular responsibilities, many local government IT leaders had developed disaster plans and had even begun to make investments that would, in the case of a disaster, move some staff to alternate work locations. While few had imagined COVID-19, as they ramped up to respond to Gov. Cuomo’s PAUSE announcement, they began to realize the value of previous investments in planning, shared services and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).
According to Jeanne Brown, IT Hall of Fame awardee and program director of the Digital Towpath Cooperative (DTC), a 20-year-old nationally recognized eGovernment shared service for small municipalities in New York, “shared services have played a critical role for years in ensuring continuity of operations for some of NYS’ smallest local governments. DTC is cloud-based, so our members were already used to connecting from anywhere. Over the last several weeks we have seen our email and website usage double as local leaders make sure their communities have the most up-to-date information. They can work from anywhere, and DTC keeps them connected to each other and with their residents.”
In Genesee County, Steve Zimmer, IT director, highlighted the ROI they are experiencing from their virtual desktop infrastructure. “It was a big expense a couple of years back but it has turned out to be the best investment we made in our infrastructure for getting our teams up and running from home,” he said.
Lorne Green, CIO, Sullivan County, explained, “we had just finished installing Windows 10 in VDI and it could not have been better timing. Yes, it was more of an investment at the beginning but in the long run it gives us more flexibility. For me, now I will look at every IT investment, large or small, at its potential for supporting alternative work locations.”
Karen Andrews, assistant IT director, Broome County, said, “In our county we have disaster recovery plans and experience with natural disasters but this was a new scenario altogether. As an IT department we already knew how to work in support of our emergency operations center (EOC), so even though it has been exhausting, it’s also been a great example of putting our experience into action.”
As one of New York’s smart cities, Schenectady was well underway with a Wi-Fi project designed to ensure that the public would have access to high-speed Internet. Sensing the likelihood that the pandemic would close schools and move learning online, the project was accelerated with the understanding that students may soon have the greatest need.
According to John Coluccio, Schenectady’s signal superintendent, “the mayor knew public Wi-Fi was a key ingredient for the city to become smarter. The most exciting part of this project is seeing the difference access is making every day for the kids here in Schenectady. We’ve seen the stats; kids are using the public Wi-Fi; school is open.”
Drawing on past investments and deep expertise, IT leaders worked in partnership with mayors, administrators and department heads to execute plans for keeping their governments open. IT staff joined teams at their emergency operations centers (EOCs). They set up remote work capability for — in the case of some local governments — hundreds of employees, including the ability to accelerate plans to provide both VDI and virtual private network (VPN) capabilities. They worked with colleagues from their law departments and referenced state public meetings laws to ensure that their virtual public meetings met the necessary legal requirements. They helped community anchor institutions such as hospitals, libraries and schools.
“Our IT department has moved mountains over the last couple of weeks,” said Westchester's Beirne. “We staff the EOC and there is critical GIS work to be done; we got the employees working remotely and have not missed a beat in providing services. This is while our DPW, Parks and Rec, DoH and DoIT departments worked with NYS DoH and the Army Corp of Engineers to convert our county center and adjacent parking lot into a field hospital.”
The IT team in Tioga County, a much smaller county located in southwestern New York, used communication and planning to overcome obstacles. Douglas Camin, Tioga’s IT director, said, “communication is key and with a plan sent out to the department heads we were able to quickly prioritize and get much accomplished. Our IT team also supports municipalities in Tioga so we were able to help there, too. It is about creating a plan and determining which resources need to be deployed where and when, and then doing it.”
When Gov. Cuomo issued his executive order, most local governments did not have telework policies in place, so this was new territory. But to Bob Cacace, CIO and COO, city of Yonkers, teamwork made it happen. “Like many other NYS cities, we didn’t have a telework policy or much past practice,” he said. “But our city knows how to work together as a team, so we identified and communicated with staff, bought equipment, imaged new devices, assessed infrastructure, to get the staff up and running. All in all, it took us about three days, and now we know if we had to do it again, it would take half that time.”
Many IT directors recognized that user education on teleworking technologies would be absolutely critical. Most staff and members of various governing bodies had never used teleworking technologies. IT departments ran help desks and provided guided sessions on a continual basis, hours on end. Most city and county IT departments worked 12-14 hours a day for at least the first two weeks, and possibly are still.
For local governments without enough equipment to support telework for all their staff, the CIOs and IT directors had to work quickly. They knew that many other governments and businesses would be in the same boat and that many would also need to buy new equipment. Some governments chose to follow standard procurement processes and found that by the time they got through those processes, the inventory they needed was gone or the number of devices they could buy in each order was limited.
Others worked with their county colleagues to agree on processes that provided necessary flexibility.
Paul Lutwak, IT director for Madison County, credited his team and the working relationship with county leadership for making it possible for him to get Madison County up and running. “I had the full support of our Board of Supervisors, my administration, the Department Directors, and the purchasing and finance departments who said that they would handle all paperwork for any purchases that needed to be made. This was huge in helping the county get up and running quickly,” he said.
Tompkins County IT staff worked side by side with public officials through the transition from face to face to virtual public meetings. Loren Cottrell, the county’s deputy director of IT, explained how it worked: “We set up our county Legislature with video conferencing technology, then we added features to include the public. We did training sessions with members, and before we knew it they were business as usual, just virtual. It was a learning curve for sure, but we stayed a part of the process until everyone was comfortable with the technology.”
Information sharing among IT professionals has been key to response efforts. Two networks, in particular, have been valuable. One is the longstanding and highly trusted listserv of the NYS’ Local Government IT Directors Association (NYSLGITDA). For 25 years this association has supported knowledge sharing and networking in day-to-day decision-making and through disasters such as ice storms, floods, cybersecurity incidents and now COVID-19.
A critical new resource supporting the efforts of county IT leaders nationwide is the County Tech Xchange. Launched by the National Association of Counties (NACo) just as the U.S. was heading into lockdown, the Xchange listserv and portal has provided a much needed connection among county IT leaders throughout the country.
According to Rita Reynolds, chief technology officer at NACo, “county CIOs are tackling many of the same challenges in every state. The Tech Xchange is a way to connect them to their peers so they can hear from those who are also working on similar issues. Questions posed by county IT leaders are answered quickly and in depth. The portal already houses many examples of technology job descriptions and policies on a range of topics, including work from home, which any county IT leader can use. There is no need to go it alone.”
Working alongside county leadership, local government IT professionals used their years of knowledge and experience and put them quickly into action. Their service approach, dedication to the community, and ingenuity allowed their governments to continue critical operations and services. As these stories show, trust was a significant contributing factor in each local government.
Jack Hess, IT director with Cortland County and president of NYSLGITDA, said, “you can talk about a pandemic when planning, but no one really thought we would have to move most of our workforce to remote locations in a matter of days. But we did. Our county administrator and board put their trust in the IT department and we got it done.”
Rochester CIO Albert Gauthier stated, “it was important to make sure we were meeting the needs of our colleagues so we put out a survey to all city employees within the first week of remote working. What we heard back was an overwhelming sense of appreciation and support. Even with some hiccups and challenges, our colleagues knew the IT team would work until everyone was able to carry out their work from home.”
With their governments still running during the pandemic, these public servants are not resting on their laurels. They are continuing to support critical response efforts including county and city health departments who are faced with new challenges in collecting, sharing and analyzing COVID-19-related data. They know that budgets are going to be affected, yet planning and preparation has to continue. The trust that has been built is critical because everyone knows the next 30 days will surely not look anything like the first 30.
Almost all of them know someone who is sick or succumbed to the illness and still, like their local government peers, they forge ahead. They do it for each other, they do it for their communities, and they do it because they’re New Yorkers. It is what we call #NYTOUGH.