What’s happening in Revere, Massachusetts, is playing out in cities and departments nationwide. Local governments can’t afford to continue carrying the steep burden of antiquated accounting and email systems and closets of rogue servers.
“The reality for a city is that very few voters care what your IT infrastructure looks like,” said Revere IT Director Jorge Pazos. “It’s not a pothole they’re going to hit every day.”
Cloud first is a way of operating that entails evaluating safe, secure, cloud computing options before making new investments.
COVID-19, however, put the shortcomings of dated government technology on display, forcing governments to revisit delayed upgrades with a fresh perspective.
But what happens when the need for innovation outweighs both the capacity of the IT department and the city’s ability to invest in more hardware and people to manage it?
“It’s hard to find the funds at some point, to make all the upgrades that are necessary,” said Reuben Kantor, the city’s Chief Information Officer.
“I wanted to remove all of those headaches from our ability to innovate, our ability to bring technology into every department in the city,” Kantor said, echoing Mayor Brian Arrigo’s mandate when he took the chief innovation role in August 2016.
In a joint interview, Kantor and Pazos shared why cloud was and is an attractive option and the benefits they considered when choosing a cloud-first approach.
Start With the Problem
Before settling on a technology solution, “the initial question always has to be, ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’” Kantor said. “Don’t start with the solution, start with the problem.” Here’s what that looks like in practice:
- Commit to uncovering the actual problem and any additional context by asking questions: What are you trying to do? Why do you want to do that? What issue are you trying to address?
What if you already know the problem you want to solve? “I think you’ll find that most of the time you can find that solution in the cloud,” Kantor said. “But if the solution you find is actually on prem, don’t abandon it just because it’s on prem.”
- Review the pros and cons of each technology option you’re considering.
- Find the right solution for your staff, one that employees can manage and that residents can intuitively use. What’s most conducive to addressing the problem you want to solve?
Listen to Your People
IT departments must work collaboratively with end users, the people on the ground, to ensure they feel comfortable using the technology provided, Pazos said. Adoption shouldn’t be a top-down approach.
- Partnering with employees, rather than forcing them to use new technology, can speed the adoption process while simultaneously uncovering new and more efficient ways of working.
- Skip the jargon. Most employees don’t care whether technology is being hosted by a cloud service provider or in government facilities. Speak in terms of capabilities and how workflows are supported.
“IT people aren’t known for being warm and bubbly,” Pazos said. But being approachable and fostering an open-door policy benefits everyone. “What ends up happening is people won’t be afraid to come to you, and that’s what you need,” he said.
- Avert headaches by being approachable. The ideal scenario is employees telling IT they’d like to use a certain tool or try a new capability vs. going it alone.
- Catch potential problems earlier. IT can provide perspectives on a tool’s shortcoming or why there might be a better fit for solving a problem, but those insights come only through strong and open communication.
“I don’t think the answer is a technical thing,” Pazos said. “I want to be involved in those conversations, and particularly early, because when you’re not, what you end up oftentimes getting is a half-baked solution that requires more work than it would have if they had included you earlier.”
Counting the Benefits of Cloud
Buying and setting up a new application and supporting hardware could take several months, and that was before the pandemic, Pazos said. Having a cloud-first approach shortens that product lead time because employees and residents can begin using new applications and services sooner.
In 2019, the city began making serious capital investments in its IT infrastructure. “And then in the middle of it all … COVID hit,” Kantor said.
“The more things that we had as-a-Service that you could access, it required fewer people to have to log in, or use a virtual private network (VPN) to get into the city systems,” he said. “You could actually just access a lot of the work remotely pretty easily.”
For example, installing a cloud solution empowered Building Department inspectors in the field to access ticketing and inspection information remotely — streamlining their work. No solution is perfect, but partnering with the vendor, Revere can update the software as needed and spur continuous improvements. Guiding employees through change is even harder, though.
“We have very little infrastructure here onsite,” Pazos said. “We have two servers onsite for survivability; everything else is cloud-hosted with our managed service provider.”
These investments have significantly boosted the city’s ability to regain standard IT service levels in the event of a disaster and quickly recover from any downtime. “I cannot even begin to tell you what that would have cost if we were to do that independently,” he said. It would be a nonstarter and cost prohibitive.
Food for Thought
Pazos soft launched a casual meetup for employees in the IT office but put the gatherings on hold because of COVID-19. They started with bagels and donuts and morphed into a potluck gathering with themed days, Hawaiian shirts and crockpots of mac and cheese. Even the mayor was a regular.
“The accessibility of the IT office to staff is no longer a mystery,” Kantor said, joking that the only things missing are hot pots and a kitchen. “Everyone’s walking through.”
These informal gatherings have also helped connect employees across departments, including the chief of infrastructure and the transportation planner. “They literally had a 30-minute conversation in my office, and they called somebody in and solved a problem because they came in for bagels,” Pazos said. “So, I think it works.”
This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s guide, “A Cloud User Guide for the Everyday Problem-Solver.”