Banding Together: 6 Challenges Shared by City CIOs

CIOs from six cities in New York convene annually to have open conversations in a closed, trusted space to share ideas, discuss common challenges and brainstorm potential solutions. This is a snapshot of selected conversations from the group’s annual meetings.

by Meghan E. Cook / October 31, 2016
Lisa Bobo, CIO of Rochester, N.Y., came up with the idea to bring local CIOs together to talk openly about issues they all face. Luke Copping

In 2015, President Obama announced the Smart Cities Initiative, designed to help reinvigorate communities so that they could tackle local challenges and improve city services.

With an investment of more than $160 million in federal research and new technology collaborations, this initiative helped further establish the support needed for cities to think about technology in a strategic and innovative way in areas like transportation, public safety, economic development, energy efficiency, urbanization and environmental stability. This extensive commitment of federal resources to meet local and community-led initiatives is important, particularly at a time when small- to medium-sized cities are rapidly evolving to meet the needs of the people they serve.

In cities in New York state, CIOs are already self-organizing, convening as a group to leverage their collective experiences. Reaching out to the Center for Technology in Government (CTG), an applied research center at the University at Albany, for trusted guidance, CIOs from New York City, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers and Albany (representing populations of 99,000 to 8.4 million) convene annually to have open conversations in a closed, trusted space to share ideas, discuss common challenges and brainstorm potential solutions. The brainchild of Lisa Bobo, CIO of Rochester, N.Y., the initial goal was simply to see what would happen when a small group of CIOs who shared a willingness to discuss current projects, challenges and solutions came together to explore their issues.


Bobo is one of six local CIOs in New York who meet annually to discuss current projects, challenges and solutions. Photo by Luke Copping.
 

CTG, world-renowned for improving government and public service through innovations in technology, policy and management, provided the neutral and trusted environment to help this group of CIOs carry out their vision. For more than 22 years, CTG has been creating and supporting these new models of collaboration with local, state and national leaders so that they can set forth and carry out their innovation agendas.

A Simple Structure: Why it Works

Gathering groups of people together to have an unbridled conversation is not new. Gathering CIOs together in this way isn’t new either. Associations are built on convening those with similar titles across geographic regions, and they’ve been doing it for decades. What is unique with this group is the light touch in both organization and facilitation.

There are no formal presentations, no panels of experts, and no working group with chartered goals or deliverables. These are simply individuals who share the same title and want to leverage one another’s knowledge. The following details the short list of factors that continues to shape the group’s success.

  • Everyone sees a need to convene and make the time for the two-day event, which is not an easy thing for each to do.
  • There is little planning, but rather it’s a “we’ll figure it out when we get there” approach.
  • They trust CTG’s guidance and support in addition to each other’s knowledge and experience.
  • There isn’t a regulated attendance. No one has to come back, and if they do it’s because they value the experience.

A Snapshot of Candid Conversations

While these six CIOs are not a complete representation of all cities in New York, or cities across the nation, the topics discussed do represent areas that many local governments are working to address. Weaving in and out of conversations are a multitude of topics including financing municipal Wi-Fi efforts, conducting cybersecurity awareness and education, mapping an enterprise architecture, deploying joint broadband efforts, facing technology adoption challenges, implementing next-generation Web portals, recruiting and retaining talent, and navigating cloud governance issues, just to name a few. The following presents a snapshot of selected conversations from the group’s annual meetings.

1. Cybersecurity Preparedness

The thought of a potential security breach is not too far from a CIO’s mind. Thinking about cyberawareness, prevention and mitigation is always a high priority. The CIOs most often begin with accounts of the latest attacks, including types and frequency. The conversation then moves to preparedness, assessments conducted and tools tested, and shifts to facts about the size of their departments, planned preparedness training and the mechanisms in place for response.

But lately, the conversation has focused on two areas: 1) the need for cyber-readiness collaboration at the local, state and federal levels, and 2) more effective ways to communicate the importance of cyber-readiness to leadership. Discussions in these two areas allow for stories of what has worked and what has not. What all seem to agree on is that the most positive change takes place when there is a significant breach, although all cities work hard to not find themselves in that situation.

2. Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity

CIOs are typically responsible for the development of a citywide plan that puts recovery point and time objectives for each application out in the open, and then leads the assessment of the disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) responsiveness. While DR and BC plans go hand in hand, these CIOs have discussed that some have more time and energy invested in DR than BC. When the conversation moves to simulated disaster response testing, the lessons learned are the most eagerly anticipated stories. Not all participating cities have engaged in real-life testing where their planned responses are followed (or not); some are still identifying citywide expectations and goals. All continue to identify DR and BC as critical conversations and expect to be sharing experience, tips and tricks for years to come.

3. Moving to the Cloud

Conversations on cloud are quite different than they were two years ago. In the beginning it was more abstract, fleshing out the general pros and cons of moving to a cloud-based structure. Now the discussion centers around the enterprise governance structures to manage the multilayer cloud services they already have in place. This is not to say that every city has jumped on the cloud bandwagon. Some are just getting their feet wet with nonessential applications, and there are even a couple on the precipice of that leap.

But for those cities already using cloud services, they share thoughts on costs, terms and conditions, management of expectations, security, public versus private cloud, navigating long-term subscription fees (as opposed to funding capital investments), and the list goes on. What is certain is that while some cities could not imagine living without the cloud, others don’t see the payoff yet. However, all agree that any intelligence they can gain from each other is well worth the discussion. 

4. Managing Expectations in Technology Adoption

City CIOs in New York are like their peers across the country in that they are always in the middle of multiple implementations. Taking manual, paper-based processes and introducing or upgrading technology to increase efficiency and improve outcomes is part of the job. While implementing IT projects is nothing new, neither is the consistent human nature to avoid change. Conversations inevitably turn to one story or another about how after months of planning and design with a wide range of stakeholders, when a new system (and process) is actually implemented and disrupts the status quo, the response is surprise. People want the change, but at the same time, they don’t fully appreciate how it will impact their routines.

There are countless stories of implementation and upgrade projects that aren’t fully embraced because of the embedded processes and practices that require change. These are sometimes the funniest stories and there is never a shortage of them, but they also bring significant value. Through frustration and then laughter emerge new approaches for setting and managing expectations and reinforcing change.   

5. Recruiting and Retaining Talent

Attracting and keeping people with the right skill sets is becoming increasingly difficult not just for cities but for all areas of government. With looming retirements and consistent offers from private-sector firms, CIOs are feeling the pressure.

 

The+group+of+local+CIOs+in+2015+with+Robert+Jones%2C+president+of+the+University+at+Albany.
The group of local CIOs in 2015 with Robert Jones, president of the University at Albany.

In New York state, the Department of Civil Service dictates much of the workforce and in some cities, it has even more stringent residency requirements. Also, with the shift to more specialized training programs, there are fewer people with cross-position skills and experience. This creates a tricky balance between recruitment and retention strategies that don’t always produce the desired results.

Some cities use hackathons to bring talented folks into their sphere, not just for the apps they’ll develop, but also for the possibility of recruiting them. Other cities have gotten clever with job announcements, highlighting the “cool” projects that await like working on the implementation of body cameras or developing broadband strategies. For these conversations, there’s never a one-size-fits-all strategy, but all realize that they need to step up their game to recruit and retain talent. 

6. Planning and Funding Municipal Wi-Fi

Those city CIOs who don’t have municipal Wi-Fi or are at the beginning of the process usually spend more time listening than those who’ve lived through a deployment. In each city, the CIO inevitably plays a role in designing and implementing a system. Of course, the larger cities have had Wi-Fi for quite a while now, and the medium- to smaller-sized cities are working toward the best solutions for them.

One of the first questions asked is, “What is the sustainable model that the city and partners are willing to put forth?” To answer this and other questions, city CIOs typically work across boundaries with development corporations, school districts, other governments and nonprofits to develop a plan for citywide Wi-Fi. The discussion weaves in and out of financing to development to implementation, and those CIOs who’ve lived through the process from start to finish have essential advice for those just beginning to figure it out. 

A Common Thread

While the range in size of participating cities is significant and each CIO has differences in purview and oversight, organizational structure and dedicated resources, they have more in common than not. That’s because the CIO’s role is fundamentally the same across jurisdictions: It requires both operational and strategic thinking, a focus on design and implementation, a view of both city-sponsored and community-sponsored initiatives, and a core competency of more management and leadership than technical skill.

They routinely engage in a balancing act between their roles as leader, team player and supporter in a range of practices across a long list of government programs and services. While the job is not easy, each has lobbied to get there, so it’s exactly where they want to be. Next year they will again make the decision as to whether to clear their schedules for two days and descend on CTG to swap stories. If they do, it will also be exactly where they want to be.  ¨

Meghan E. Cook is the program director for the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany.