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CIO Insights: Meeting Needs of the Evolving Role

City CIOs are in demand these days. They are taking on broader responsibilities, including pumping up security, providing more city services online, installing wireless networks and improving information access.

The old stereotypes—reliable and stable—fall short when it comes to characterizing today’s city CIOs. Instead, think enterprising, innovative and collaborative.

Demand is surging for city CIOs, especially those who can take on broader responsibilities and team with other managers to drive the strategic use of technology. This year, for the first time, the city CIO slot made the top 10 list of the hottest executive jobs, which is compiled annually by executive recruitment firm Christian & Timbers, headquartered in New York. Key factors boosting demand include leading-edge initiatives, such as secure wireless wide area networks, the firm says.

 

City IT executives are also being asked to pump up security, provide more city services online and improve information access to comply with regulations such as open-government ordinances. Though their primary focus is improving service while keeping costs down, some CIOs are even generating revenue for their city.

The evolving role of CIOs calls for different skills. “Cities used to look for people who were more technology oriented,” says Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice chair of Christian & Timbers in Cleveland. “In the last two years, the job has become more political.”

Now, cities are seeking people who can work with other municipal executives to understand business needs, as well as with outside vendors and the public, while simultaneously managing the IT workforce. (See “What Cities Want in a CIO” on page 29.)

As CIOs demonstrate an ability to lead, they’re being given projects outside the traditional IT boundaries, such as capital projects and library systems, according to Janette Pell, CIO at San Luis Obispo County, Calif., and president of the Metropolitan Information Exchange, a forum for local government CIOs.

This is fueling demand for high-level IT executives who can operate in a strategic role. “More and more cities want to upgrade the CIO position, upgrade the talent,” says Christian & Timbers’ Ramakrishnan.

Behind the Scenes

To go behind the scenes of this challenging, high-profile position, StateTech spoke with CIOs in Plano, Texas; Milpitas, Calif.; and Chesapeake, Va.

Plano is a fast-growing city in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with more than 236,000 residents and a tech-savvy workforce. David Stephens, Plano’s director of technology services, oversees the city administration’s telecommunications and public safety systems, as well as IT. His department has 47 employees and a $9.8 million budget.

“I work with so many groups of people,” Stephens says. “It’s not like working at a bank, where there is a single product. Here, there are 18 lines of business.

“You have to understand how the organization works, and you have to work with the departments to provide solutions. Plus, the demands of the public on government are increasing.”

When Stephens started the job in 2004, he met with department heads to understand their organizations, any trouble areas and what they wanted to achieve. “I follow up every two months or so to check that there are no new issues and that we are on track,” he explains. Monthly steering committee meetings that include the city manager also help keep things on course.

One top initiative in Plano is a secure wireless network for public safety services, for which the city is currently soliciting bids. “Applications are getting more graphic in nature,” Stephens says. “For instance, officers get thumbnail pictures of suspects” over the network.

That requirement, along with the need for stronger security and encryption, has Stephens looking to replace the city’s third-generation commercially available wireless network with a private, secure 4.9 gigahertz solution for public safety applications. The city is also considering increasing the bandwidth to mobile devices.

Though public safety and emergency services are the top priority, the city will probably look at how other departments can use the remaining bandwidth once the network is deployed. If there’s still bandwidth left over after that, the public may also get access, though the city doesn’t have a model for that yet.

Like many other cities, Plano now offers systems that interact directly with the public. For instance, it has extensive information and services on its Web site, including online payment of utility bills.

One challenge for technology services was taking over support for the library system, Stephens says, including library PCs used by the public. People who encountered problems, such as a blocked Web site, would go to a librarian. If the librarian didn’t know the answer, he or she would call the IT staff.

“It was difficult for the IT staff, because they are used to supporting internal systems,” Stephens adds. “It took a while to understand [the librarians’] pressures.” One benefit of supporting the library system is that it resulted in the development of service-level agreements that will be a template for other services.

Meeting Open Government Needs

The need to comply with regulations requiring open information access posed another challenge. Because a growing volume of information is stored electronically, ensuring that it is available on request requires cities to store more data, such as e-mail, for a longer time—without bogging down systems. That meant Plano had to bulk up its mail servers, Stephens says.

Compliance with open-government ordinances is also a priority for Bill Marion, information services director at Milpitas. To make information accessible to the public, his 18-person department is putting thousands of contracts, business licenses and other documents online. The system is due to go live in a few months.

The most difficult part, according to Marion, is indexing the information, so people can quickly find what they seek. “We need a user interface for public use,” he says.

Thanks to its proximity to Silicon Valley, Milpitas has a highly technology-literate population. Almost two years ago, the city implemented a metropolitan 802.11b wireless emergency services network that now covers about eight square miles, according to Marion. Like the system planned by Plano, this network can transmit images, so it can send pictures of drivers’ licenses to police cars.

Marion, who joined the technology department five years ago, says his group takes on some nontraditional IT responsibilities, such as a city cable TV channel. In addition, the city facilities’ security systems are networked: Card-key devices and security cameras are Internet Protocol devices, which are managed by the IT department.

The technology department also was involved in defining cabling requirements during the planning of Milpitas’ new city hall and will be involved in creating a new city library system. “IT is often an afterthought, but in this city, it’s involved from the outset,” Marion says.

To determine the technology strategy, Marion works with people outside the city administration. A citizens’ committee, for example, helps formulate goals for a telecommunications plan, looks at the role the cable TV channel should play and considers expansion of online geographical information systems (GIS). Online services such as bill payment and city maps are now part of everyday life.

“People expect to be able to do things online, and they expect the same level of service from local government,” Marion says.

A few IT initiatives have even resulted in extra cash for the city. For instance, the city’s GIS expertise resulted in a contract to provide GIS services to an outside agency. Income is also generated by leasing space on the wireless network’s cell towers.

Online Collection in Chesapeake

After working for the city of Chesapeake, Va., for 30 years and becoming the director of information technology in 2001, Dania Karloff is an astute observer of the evolution in city IT. “The role of technology has really changed,” she says, “and it has changed the kind of people you find in IT. They used to be very technical; now they interact with customers and are more outgoing.”

That changing role has resulted in a stronger focus on users’ needs. For instance, Chesapeake recently implemented a call center, requiring software to integrate information from different sources. “Instead of hunting through a phone directory, citizens can call one place for bulk trash pickup, grass cutting or building permits,” Karloff says. The city is also working on an integrated cash collection system that will let residents pay multiple bills at one time.

Systems are developed based on an overall city strategic plan. With that in place, Karloff is now having individual meetings with department heads, to “try to get an idea of where they see themselves, technology-wise in one, two or three years.”

Chesapeake could potentially cut costs for some facilities by replacing leased lines with wireless links. It also might generate revenue from some systems. As an example, the city might provide subscription services to professionals, such as attorneys or realtors, enabling them to access information online.

Karloff also has regulatory issues on her plate. For instance, when citizens use ambulances, the city collects some of their medical information, which has to be protected to comply with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Also looming is the prospect of Sarbanes Oxley-like regulation, which she thinks will eventually affect local governments. And security remains an area where vigilance is essential.

Though the role of city IT managers has become more interesting, it’s also more challenging, Karloff says. For instance, the city recently implemented a new financial system, replacing one that was 25 years old. In the past, an IT organization might have been able to set a vague deadline on such a project. Today, the city’s increasing reliance on technology meant a firm July 1 deadline—with no excuses.

“You can’t afford to fail,” Karloff says. “It’s not your father’s municipality.

What Cities Want in a CIO

By Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice chair of Christian & Timbers

Cities have high expectations for their CIOs, so the ideal job candidate should be able to:

1. Work collaboratively with multiple constituencies—city officials and department heads, lobbyists, and citizens—while simultaneously managing the IT workforce.

2. Translate technology into business terms that can be easily understood by mayors and city department heads.

3. Understand security thoroughly, because cities are being targeted and need to use technology to enhance security.

4. Plan for the long term, anticipating the way a planned system will interact with the city’s other technology systems and applications.

5. Foresee additional revenue streams that can be generated by investing in technology, such as wireless networks or Web-based services.

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Oct 31 2006

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