Category Archives: CIOs

Can Government CIOs Avoid Politics?

The short answer, as known by everyone who has been a government Chief Information Officer, is a resounding “NO”.

This question is becoming more urgent as a new federal government administration in Washington charts its own, unique, path of policies and directives.   But it is a question which is lurking in the shadows of the march of technology, and will emerge as a more painful question for CIOs soon.

korematsu-fred-googleTechnology companies and executives have tried to stay apart from politics.  Taking sides on political questions is usually the recipe for customer disaffection and even a boycott.  #deleteuber has gone viral in the past few days as customers perceived Uber lacked opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration.   In response to that same order, many have called for a boycott of Starbucks after its CEO planned to hire 10,000 immigrants, responding to that same presidential order.  Most companies involved in technology are now taking sides on this political issue.  Google, for example, wryly protested the order by putting an image of Fred Korematsu on its search site.  Korematsu protested the internment (by Executive Order) of Japanese-American’s in World War II.

Since the emergence of the role of chief information officer in the 1990s, federal, state and large city CIOs have always been involved in politics.  They work for elected officials who are members of political parties, and are expected to have allegiance to those individuals and those parties.

On the other hand, CIOs of smaller cities and counties – usually those with a professional city or county manager – often have long tenures if they are professionally competent.   Steve Monaghan of Nevada County, California, has served in that role since 1999.  Phil Bertolini of Oakland County, Michigan, has served as CIO and Deputy County Administrator since 2005 and was information technology director prior to that.

Competent and politically savvy CIOs of larger cities and counties have survived changes in their executives too – witness Joe Marcella’s 18 years in Las Vegas.  Others have successfully moved between jobs in major jurisdictions such as Cathy Maras who started as CIO in Cook County and is now in Bexar County (San Antonio) or Steve Reneker who has moved from the City of Riverside to the City of Los Angeles and is now in Riverside County.  Adel Abeid, Jon Walton and Beth Niblock are other examples of successful CIOs moving between multiple large jurisdictions.

In the future, however, government CIOs are going to face daunting political and ethical questions, for examples:

  • Facial Recognition. Your City (county, state) operates video cameras in public spaces.  These might include traffic cameras, security cameras or surveillance cameras in public spaces.  Your executive wants you to implement facial recognition, and build a database of individuals who attend protest marches, to find those who commit violence and crimes in order to arrest and prosecute them.   While this is a noble mission, such a database also will capture the identities of many others who are legitimately exercising their right to free speech.
  • Social Media. Your police chief or executive asks you to find and implement software to scan social media use by existing and prospective employees.   The immediate need is to make sure they are not criminals, racists, or committing other illegal acts.   But that same database could be used to determine their political affiliation and views.    It is clearly unethical to use such information when making employment (or continuation of employment) decisions about employees protected by civil service.  But is it ethical to consider such information for political (“at will”) employees or in jurisdictions without civil service?  Could such information be used to go on a “witch hunt” for employees who do not share the chief executive’s view?
  • Protected classes. Your executive is concerned about terrorism and potential hacking or damage to the City’s image by disgruntled employees.  You know that disgruntled employees are a primary cause of cyber theft and other insider threats.  Your executive asks you to use a social media monitoring tool and other technology to build a dossier on employees who potentially pose such threats, especially if they have family/friend links to known terrorist nations.
  • New technology. Your executive demands you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the City’s call center for city services.   You can implement a variety of new technologies such as chatbots, natural language processing (think “Alexa” or “Siri”) and even artificial intelligence such as IBM’s Watson.   Such technologies will eliminate dozens or hundreds of living wage jobs for people of color and those who are single parents or the sole breadwinner for their families.  While a typical response might be to offer re-training programs, the displaced workers in many cases will not have the basic education or abilities to learn the replacement high-tech jobs which will become available.

The convergence of the new “America First” policy in Washington, D. C., and the availability of a number of new technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to natural language processing to video analytics (facial and object recognition) to massive databases with associated “big data” analytics (and the threat of significant misinterpretation) will present many dilemmas for the government Chief Information Officer.

artificial-intelligence-iconEven more frightening, artificial intelligence will vastly transform the face of society and the economy of the United States over the next 20 years, as documented in a 2016 federal government report here.  Millions from jobs ranging from call centers to lawyers to accountants to everyone who drives a vehicle are at risk of elimination or significant change.  All of this technology change will be infused with politics as elected officials scramble to create jobs, save jobs or fix blame for loss of jobs.

Government CIOs work for these elected officials.  CIOs have this technology tiger by the tail.  They should pray it does not eat them alive.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, big data, CIOs, future of technology

What IT Workers should say to their CIOs

who-moved-cheeseI’ve worked as a public sector employee and a manager of government technology workers for three decades. While public sector workers share many attributes and work attitudes with their private sector counterparts, there are also some things unique to public sector employment. In writing this, I was inspired by two recent blog posts by Steve Radick including “Ten Things You Should be Saying to Your Boss.”

First, government is, in the minds of many people, synonymous with bureaucracy. I’ve blogged about this before, but all large organizations, public or private, are painted with the bureaucracy brush. The bigger the organization, the more bureaucracy – and this applies to banks, manufacturing companies, the software industry and, well, everything where there are at least two people working together.

What should public employees be saying to their CIO bosses? When I was a CIO in a large City government, what should my folks have been telling me? And again, thanks Steve Radick for the inspiration for many of these. http://www.steveradick.com

1. “Don’t worry about it – I got it.” It is really great when, as a manager, I know an employee is going to handle something – take care of it, keep people informed and get the job done. Erin Devoto, my deputy at the City of Seattle and now the acting Chief Technology Officer (CTO) there, is a living, breathing, example of this. She took so many projects and drove forward to make sure they were accomplished.

2. “Here’s a problem – here’s what I’d recommend and why.” Some of my worst experiences as a public sector manager were “monkey transfers”. That’s where an employee recognized a problem or potential issue, brought it to my attention and then walked out of the office – transferred the monkey from her/his back to mine. But some of my best experiences were when employees recognized an issue, worked with their team to brainstorm some potential courses of action, and laid them out for a decision. Usually those employees, after the decision was made, walked out of the office saying #1 above – “I’ll handle it”. What a relief. I’m going to especially call out Mr. Stan Wu at the City of Seattle on this one, as he did this many times for me on projects ranging from fiber optic networks to radio networks and others.

3. “What can I do to help?” There are few better experiences for anyone – employee or boss – than being faced with a difficult situation, and having the team come together to figure out a solution and implement it. Willingness to proactively help address issues or problems – not waiting to be tasked with an assignment, is a hallmark of a great employee.

4. “Playing the ‘Angel’s Advocate’ …” I’ve been in so many meetings which go on and on as employees raise one potential issue after another with a proposed course of action or an idea. I used to cringe when someone said “Playing the Devil’s Advocate …” and then went on to describe some low probability stupid scenario about how a course of action might fail. It’s almost like the employees had a pool or a bet on who could come up with the most issues or the most unlikely scenarios to kill the plan. Give me an “Angel’s Advocate” – a proponent – any day of the week. And if it is a legitimate issue or problem with the idea, suggest a way to mitigate it (see #2 above).

5. “I just read/watched/heard … and it got me thinking that…” As the boss, I love new ideas, and with all the changes in technology we’ve seen in the last 20 years, such ideas abound. In government it is relatively easy to find ideas which haven’t been tried – usually private sector companies are first to adopt new technologies such as online services or mobile applications. Figuring out creative ways to use those in the government’s service to constituents is something every employee can do.

6. “This idea has some risks, here they are, but I’d like to try doing it … ” Government employees are notoriously risk adverse. I never quite understood that – most are protected by civil service or seniority rules or union bargaining agreements. Perhaps the risk aversion rises from fear of a newspaper headline or wasting taxpayer money. Frankly, I think bad bosses have a role to play too – ones who steal ideas for themselves or have a negative attitude about anything new. In any case, an employee who is willing to risk their reputation on an innovative solution can be a breath of fresh air.

7. “You know how we’ve been doing X? Why do we do it that way?” This one needs little explanation. We call it “paving the cowpath” when we apply technology or automate some business process without examining how to improve the process itself. Whether it be procurement or personnel actions or decision making or delivering a service, we should always look at the process first. This is even more important in government organizations where culture can be hard to change and existing business processes have very deep roots. No amount of technology or automation will materially improve an outmoded process.

8. “How am I doing?” Frankly, I used to cringe at employees who asked me this. Giving feedback – and honest feedback – is hard. Many employees don’t want to hear bad news and many bosses don’t want to give it. But regular sessions of feedback are much more important than formal performance evaluations. And, of course, the flip side of this coin is willingness to accept that feedback, including #9 below. And employees don’t need to wait for the boss to initiate such conversations.

9. “Here’s what I learned and how I’ll do it better next time”. It is hard for many bosses to give feedback to employees on performance. It’s much easier if the employee recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses and proactively brings them forward for discussion. This requires, of course, a high level of self-awareness, which is difficult for many people. (I had a long-standing employee who was totally delusional about his technical skills and abilities.) Going through post-mortems on projects and honest self-evaluation is important, and then vetting it with the boss is, again, more important than formal performance evaluations.

10. “Here’s how I feel about that … ” It takes a lot of guts for an employee to come forward to his/her supervisor, manager or director and give their honest opinion. The other side of this coin is that your opinion should be well considered and logical, not just some unsupported personal opinion. And it should be YOUR opinion, as an employee. I hated it when an employee said “And everyone else feels this way too”. Oh yeah? Where are they at? And who appointed you as the spokesperson? Of course, some supervisors don’t want to hear what their employees have to say, which is a subject for a different blog post.

11. “Yes, Boss, sometimes I know you’ll move my cheese … ” Change is a constant in any technology organization, or, indeed, any organization which uses technology at all. Whole industries are undergoing upheaval – just ask anyone in the newspaper, photography or land-line telephone business. Employees need to expect change, even in government, and sometimes it won’t be an improvement. But, conversely, the boss needs to explain the changes and the rationale for them.

And speaking of bosses, just like with Steve Radick’s columns, my next blog post will be about what the CIO or boss should be saying to Public Sector Employees.

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Filed under CIOs, employees, leadership, management of technology

A 10 point Tech Plan for Mayors of Large Cities

Ed-Murray-Dively-Choe

Ed Murray (center), with transition team leaders Dwight Dively and Martha Choe

(On November 5, 2013, State Senator Ed Murray was elected Mayor of Seattle.  Seattle voters have thrown out all thre of their incumbent Mayors who held office in the 21st Century.  Here are my suggestions for what Mayor-elect Murray – but, really, any Mayor in any large City – can do immediately to use technology to enhance City services and improve efficiency of operations.)

Washington state has an extraordinarily robust tech community, anchored not only by big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, but by the University of Washington and an active start-up scene. Yet our city’s engagement with that tech community – and the technology used by government itself – are inadequate and falling behind other major worldwide centers of technology.

Here’s how mayor-elect Ed Murray can create a government that uses technology to facilitate citizen involvement and provide efficient effective services …

(Read the remainder of the article on Crosscut here.)

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Filed under 311, broadband, CIOs, eCityGov, egovernment, elections, fiber, government, management of technology

If I were a Mayor, what 3 tech things would I do first?

King of the Forest

Mayor and King of the Forest

If I were Mayor of Seattle, what three actions would I take immediately to improve City government and improve quality of life for the people living and working in Seattle?

First, I’d appoint a Chief Innovation Officer (CInO) to reach out to the technology and start-up communities in Seattle, harnessing their ideas and technologies for use in City government. The outreach opportunities here are endless, from huge companies like Microsoft which has a wide variety of innovative software solutions, to smaller companies like Cozi (an app and website that helps organize family life) andProsodic (smarter use of social media). Taking advantage of these technologies will help to build the city’s economy and promote locally developed products. The CInO would also find innovative ways to cut through the bureaucracy entrenched in City departments, and help them find new ways to deliver better, cheaper, faster service.

The second thing I’d do as mayor is hire …

(Read the complete article on Crosscut here.)

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Filed under CIOs, elections, government, management of technology

– Are Government CIOs Irrelevant?

The Government CIO as viewed by the Business

The Government CIO as viewed by the Business

“The Department of No”. “The Geeks in the Basement”. “Expensive Projects, Always Late”.Increasingly, many IT departments – and their CIOs – are becoming irrelevant to the business of government.

Peter Hinssen is a visiting lecturer at London Business School and a senior industry fellow at the University of California Irvine’s School of Business. He recently wrote a provocative article on this subject, focused on CIOs and IT departments in the commercial sector.

But, as I thought about it, many of the same criticisms apply to government CIOs and my own experience as a City CIO.

We can really trace IT department irrelevance back to smart phones. I remember when I was approached by Seattle’s Police Chief and Human Services Department director in about 2004 regarding BlackBerrys. As those City business leaders attended conferences, they saw their counterparts doing email on their cell phones. “Bill, why can’t we do the same?”

Luckily I was smart enough to investigate RIM and lucky enough that RIM (now branded BlackBerry) had a robust enterprise solution which catered to my IT department. We quickly put up a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and at last count more than 1000 BlackBerrys powered by Sprint and Verizon were in use by City of Seattle employees.

I wasn’t unique, of course – most CIOs and IT departments embraced BlackBerrys.

The problem of course, is that danged fruit company, Apple. They launched the iPhone about six years ago and the iPad a couple years later. Apple didn’t give a dang about Enterprises. It’s “their way or the BlackBerry way”. No management software for IT departments. Most IT departments resisted the iPhone and iPad trend citing security, public records act, and lack of manageability. But City and County employees quickly embraced them. Suddenly, the IT department was irrelevant.

I’ve blogged about this before, especially when Seattle elected a new Mayor, Mike McGinn, in 2009, and he and his staff brought iPhones to work and said “hook us up”.

But we see this trend in many other things.

You want a constituent relationship management system? Salesforce can be up in a day for a few thousand bucks (depending on number of users. Installing a CRM in the traditional manner, especially with RFP and customization, takes 18 months and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You want to share files? You can install and customize sharepoint, which works pretty well, or go with any one of a number of document management systems. Again, 6 to 18 months, hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. But Dropbox or Box.com can be up and working in minutes.

You need to spin up a few dozen servers and a couple terrabytes of storage quickly to support an election application or another urgent need? You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and months buying and installing equipment, then configuring and patching it, or you can go contract platform-as-a-service from Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web services or others.

You need office software like word processing, spreadsheet and an email client? You can spend five million dollars and three years justifying budget, planning, installing and training users (like we did at the City of Seattle), or you can go contract for Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud or Google Apps and have it up in weeks.   (In fairness to Seattle, we did our email/Office project before cloud alternatives were readily available.)

I talked to a CIO last week who thankfully stopped the deployment of over 10,000 desk telephones in her organization. Desk telephones a tiny little window for displaying information and without video conferencing, presence or most other features found on even low-end cell phones these days.

Traditional IT folks will point to a variety of problems with my examples, of course – the cloud-based systems have security issues and they are not robust (supporting thousands of users). And they are not configurable to the unique requirements of a city, county or state government – although I’m convinced most of the “unique requirements” are actually just job security for those employees rather than true “requirements”. That’s the subject for a future blog post.

Ok, I’ve made my point about infrastructure. It’s a commodity. It’s easily purchased on the outside.

This is one problem.

Here’s the greater one: while CIOs and IT departments spend their time on software and services like those above, there are a ton of unmet needs. And, frankly, line-of-business departments are now tech saavy enough (thanks again to smartphones, tablet computers, and downloadable apps or software as a service), that they can go contract to meet these needs directly, by-passing the IT department. Here are a few examples:

  • Mapping. Yes, a city or county or state can install very robust configured software to produce beautiful maps using GIS analysts. But, frankly, most (not all) of a department’s needs can be met with Google Maps or Bing Maps or even Mapquest. (I could make a snide comment here about Apple maps, but I won’t). There are even specialized commercial mapping systems for some functions like crime mapping.
  • Big Data and Business Analytics. Government business departments are hungering for this software for uses as wide as traffic management to predictive policing to analysis of water complaints and electricity usage to simple dashboards of what happened overnight in the City (sometimes called “common operating picture”). This software is of huge use in managing a government. Is the CIO and IT department providing it?
  • Mobile devices and apps. When I was CIO in Seattle, the Transportation Director said he had been chastised by his business advisory board (trucking companies, retailers and others who depend upon freight mobility) because all his crews used paper for inspections and scheduling and construction work. Why didn’t I, as the CIO, capitalize on that comment and immediately get tablet computers and mobile clients for his traffic and asset management systems into the hands of those field workers? (For one thing the software companies who made those systems didn’t have mobile apps, but that’s a lame excuse.)

Is there a way out of this hell and dead-end of irrelevance for the Government CIO? I think there may be, with the trend we’re seeing for Chief Innovation Officers and Chief Digital Officers. I’ll blog about that in the near future.

In the meantime, I’m going back to configuring my server.

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Filed under big data, BlackBerry, CIOs, government, Uncategorized

– CIO Champions “Change”

The White HouseCan Chief Information Officers – folks who are deeply into computers and data and technology – be “champions”?

We usually think of champions in the context of the Olympics or boxing (“heavyweight champion of the world”) or others who are victorious after a hard-fought competition. CIOs are not usually considered to be competing or fighting, although, really, they do a lot of both).

This past week the White House honored 13 people for being “Local Innovators” of Change in their communities. I’m proud that eight of those folks are CIOs or Information Technology leaders in their communities: Phil Bertolini, Adel Ebeid, Carolyn Hogg, Michele Hovet, Nigel Jacob, Jay Nath, Chris Osgood and John Tolva. Every one of these eight has been acknowledged here in the pages of Government Technology or Public CIO magazine for the great work they’ve been doing in places ranging from Boston to Fresno, and San Francisco to Chicago to Philadelphia, with a stopover in Oakland County, Michigan.

Coincidentally this week, the Ash Institute at Harvard named 111 “Bright Ideas” for innovation in government. These range from tracking government departments’ performance online (TrackDC) to Allegheny County’s Music Festival fund to “Blightstat” in New Orleans.
We talk a lot about “change”. We hear a lot about “change” from every manner of political candidate from far right to far left to far bizarre.

But, frankly, “some” change is good, but most of us want and need a stable, unchanging, base of government and life. In other words, we need to be “grounded” and have a safety net. With that, we can make selective, and sometimes radical change to improve our quality of life and the quality of life for the citizens we serve.

That’s why I’m so proud of this crop of eight local government leaders (as well as the other five, who I don’t know personally). They make wise but bold changes happen. They know the capacity of their employees and elected officials and constituents to tolerate change, and they push that bubble a bit. Sometimes quite a bit.

And I’m really really proud and happy that the Obama Administration – and specifically its Office of Science and Technology Policy – recognize these champions, these heros, and hold them up as examples for the rest of us to follow (thank you Todd Park and Chris Vein).

Read more about these “Champions of Change” and their specific accomplishments on the White House blog here.

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Filed under change, CIOs, egovernment, government, Uncategorized

– CIO As City Cheerleader

Cheerleader(This post originally published July 8, 2012)

Do City, County and State government CIOs have a responsibility to be “cheerleaders” for their jurisdictions for economic development of the community?

I think so.

We CIOs have talked about “aligning information technology with the business” of government and “customer service” to other departments. Those are still important, although, increasingly, CIOs are contracting a lot of the actual “doing” of technology to software-as-a-service and other cloud providers.

But most elected officials have little interest in internal information technology functions, However virtually every one believes that bringing new business to their community – or growing it – is the key to improving the overall quality of life. New businesses bring new jobs. Governments prize technology businesses, especially, because they are “cool”, generally “green” and also bring high-paying jobs. Look on the websites of any number of cities and counties for economic development goals, and you’ll see emulation of Silicon Valley.

The governments’ CIOs are the technology experts within each government. Where better to get the expertise to help entice or grow such high-tech businesses?

Seattle recently sponsored a “Startup Weekend – Government Edition”….

(Read the rest of this blog post on my Digital Communities Blog here.)

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Filed under apps, CIOs, economy, web 2.0