In my continuing quest to ensure that local governments are recognized for the services they provide to the public, I bring you the first of several profiles of local government CIOs. With limited budgets, constraints from the county and state and under the unending watch of citizens, local technology departments are tasked with providing consistently reliable and ever improving services to help the public.
This week, the National Association of Counties wrapped up their 77th annual conference in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. I attended all of the Technology Summit meetings early in the conference and had the chance to chat with several county CIOs. One of our first speakers was Bill Schrier, former Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle (yes, city) and now the new Deputy Director at the Center for Digital Government, part of e.Republic. I talked to him about his time as a public employee in Seattle’s IT department and how they assisted the overall public mission of the city.
General responsibilities and day-to-day operations
With a staff of 200, Seattle’s Department of Information Technology is generally tasked mainly with infrastructure support for the entire city. They run data centers, telephone networks, public safety and radio networks, web sites services, TV channels, and help desk services. Many larger departments have their own IT units that do applications, such as permitting systems and records management systems. The city has approximately 11,000 employees, including approximately 250 additional IT professionals distributed among other departments.
A major IT responsibility is overall coordination for the entire city. With several individual IT departments, Schrier was responsible for setting policies that would cross departmental boundaries, such as standards for desktop computers and database management system requirements. In governance mode, Schrier served as an advisor and reviewed vendor contracts, made recommendations about technology investments to the mayor, city council and individual department heads. Schrier ultimately reported to the mayor.
Some of the largest city departments, such as the police department, relied on Schrier’s IT staff to install computers in police vehicles, however they used their own infrastructure staff to run servers and desktop software support. Schrier explained that this system is fairly typical in many of the larger cities in the country. Most smaller cities and counties have more consolidated IT systems, which he believes might be the better way to go for service and support. Individual department applications would still be handed separately, such as a park reservation systems or a water management system. With more and more applications and data storage heading towards cloud providers, consolidation will become a more effective and efficient option for many governments in the near future.
Schrier described a local government IT department as a customer service shop with income and expenses just like a small business, or, with a budget of $50 million in his case, a medium sized business. They buy servers, operate 24/7 data centers, and charge hourly rates for support staff services. Project management oversight, such as moving to VoIP for telephone service or updating the city’s 10,000 desktops with the latest Windows software are also IT department responsibilities.
Schrier and the IT department also contribute to the city’s economic development by encouraging tech businesses to move to Seattle. With Microsoft headquartered nearby and approximately 7,000 Microsoft employees residing in the city itself, Seattle is one of the county’s major tech centers. Schrier had meetings with the tech startup community to facilitate interaction between tech companies and the city government, and he would also would guest lecture at the University of Washington and other educational institutions.
Networking with other local CIOs and staying current on best practices in other local governments across the country allows Schrier and others to share and gather information from trusted professionals. From “What permitting software system do you use?” to vendor insights and discussions about the cloud and cyber security, networking about networking benefits local governments as a whole.
Schrier’s personal interest in public safety lead him to be instrumental in the creation of a nationwide 4G public safety network, now known as FirstNet. Earlier this year, Congress authorized $7 billion in funding for the new network that will dramatically improve first responder services. I will be writing about FirstNet in a future dedicated piece.
Ultimate goals for the public sector
“We serve the people who serve the constituents of the city of Seattle.”
As with every other local government function, taking care of constituents and citizens is the ultimate goal of IT. Governments offer services that cannot be found elsewhere: public safety, police, fire, and safe water. The purpose of IT is to make sure all of the technology that is used by the departments and functions of government is as efficient and effective as possible.
Not unlike other industries, changes and updates in technology, budget constraints, and dealing with different departments that want to do the same thing but on their own create challenges for local government IT professionals. It is unwise to have five departments use five different business intelligence systems when one customizable city-wide system might be more cost effective and efficient.
Measuring return on IT investment can be difficult to illustrate. In a budget challenged environment, investing more in technology can lead to better service delivery, however when competing for funding, showing the public the dollar benefit of switching software providers or a large investment in new desktop computers can be challenging. What’s the dollar benefit of a new police computer dispatch system? Will police vehicles arrive faster? Will crimes be solved more expeditiously? Maybe implementing a new workflow system for the water department will allow technicians to work better and save time in the field, a measureable benefit, but how do you demonstrate the ROI of moving from Windows XP to Windows 7?
Though the benefits can sometimes be hard to explain to public officials, it can be even more difficult to explain to the public. Because local government is the level of government closest to the people, local public IT employees have a different kind of contact with citizens than IT professionals at the state or federal level. Their decisions are felt at a much more personal level. Who responds when you can 911? Not the FBI. Who keeps the water flowing cleanly? Not the Coast Guard. Do you complain to your congressional representative when your local park isn’t clean? IT professionals provide the background technical support to local public services that benefit everyone.
Of course, doing more with less every year is another hurdle. When Schrier started as CTO he had a budget of $59 million; when he left 8 ½ years later, he had a reduced budget of $49 million, with most of the cuts occurring in the last five years.
Center for Digital Government
Schrier had worked with the Center for Digital Government for several years, attending events with other CIOs and sharing experiences. He hosted Center events in Seattle, such as a “wireless roadshow” about the latest developments in wireless networking, and an editorial roundtable where local officials talked about the technology challenges they faced. Seattle won “Best of the Web” competitive awards three times under his direction and was named as the number two digital city, right behind Honolulu, Hawai’i, by the Center.
The Center for Digital Government is part of eRepublic. It is a national research and advisory institute on information technology policies and best practices in state and local government. Through its diverse and dynamic programs and services, the Center provides public and private sector leaders with decision support, knowledge, and opportunities to help them effectively incorporate new technologies in the 21st century.*
Schrier was interested in the opportunity to work with the Center while still being active in the IT field and connecting with city, county and state CIOs. He has been blogging for several years and enjoys writing about public IT issues. You can find a link to his blog below.
Schrier has a BA in physics and math and taught high school before earning his MPA mid-career from the University of Washington. He was already working in IT at the city of Seattle at that point and later served as CTO for 8 ½ years. After almost 30 years of public service to the city, Schrier retired in late June of 2012.
Bill Schrier’s blog – http://www.digitalcommunities.com/blogs/city-cio/
Center for Digital Government – http://www.centerdigitalgov.com
City of Seattle Department of Information Technology – http://www.seattle.gov/doit/
*Information from the Center for Digital Government’s web site.