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Asheville, N.C.’s CIO on Cyberstrategy and Long-Term Goals

Jonathan Feldman, chief information officer of Asheville for the last 15 years, discusses the changes he’s seen in his city as new technologies have become available, as well as what he sees in his agency’s future.

Asheville, N.C.’s CIO, Jonathan Feldman, is a bit of an outlier. He’s been the city’s IT chief for almost 15 years and has seen tech that was state-of-the-art at the start of his tenure become outdated. He’s seen the rise of cloud services, endured the growing threat of ransomware, phishing and other cyberattacks, and used his experience to keep bad actors away from Asheville’s data.

1. With ransomware attacks affecting cities nationwide, what is your cybersecurity strategy?

It’s an error for anyone to say that it could never happen here because it can happen anywhere, but we’re doing our best. We were fortunate to have our city council approve a full-time cybersecurity coordinator, but that’s not a magic bullet; it doesn’t fix everything, and everyone is still responsible for security. Like a lot of other cities, we rely a lot on education, because we have had those social engineering attacks. When employees are empowered with information and they understand that bad things can happen, they tend to take this seriously and think before they click.

It’s hard once you publish data to get it back. It’s a lot like radiation that way because it sticks around a long time. If you don’t have the data, you can’t have a data breach around it. You have to be very mindful about what data you store, especially as a local government. 

2. How have cloud services enhanced local government in Asheville?

One of the major things that the Google Suite has done for us is enable folks to serve themselves when it comes to fielding questionnaires, building sites and that kind of thing. They can tailor it to their line of business needs and they don’t need us for the little stuff, which means we can focus our efforts on the hard stuff.

One thing that pushed us toward Google was not having to maintain a server. An agency our size needs a pretty beefy exchange server, which means you’re buying hardware every four years and somebody is the administrator. We’ve been able to reprogram those resources to do other things and that’s one of the important things about cloud: You inevitably end up paying less. 

3. What have been your greatest achievements during your 15 years as Asheville’s CIO?

Probably the biggest thing is that I have a quality of staff that is unmatched in local government. We can’t pay as much as the private sector, but we can offer people a sense of mission and a sense of meaning in their work, and every time we do something, we’re doing it for our community, where we live. We serve everyone in Asheville. That’s one of the ways the mission has really morphed because when I first got here, it was a mission statement about how we serve city employees. Now we recognize that everyone in Asheville is our customer and everyone in Asheville has the potential to be a partner for us. We haven’t adopted technology for the sake of adopting technology. We’ve done it so that we can get the mission accomplished in a better way. 

4. What is your long-term goal for the city?

A 1,200-person organization should not have a data center. There are so many other options if we do need on-premises gear, and there are data centers that we can rent space from. The goal is to try and get most of our portfolio either as software as a service or infrastructure as a service.

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.
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