Perspectives from Partners: Public Technology Institute (PTI)

By Yejin Jang posted Jan 09,2017 03:46 PM


On Thursday, January 12 at 3 p.m. (Eastern) NASCIO and the Public Technology Institute (PTI) will present the 2017 Tech Forecast via webinar.  Ahead of that event, we wanted to talk to PTI’s executive director, Dr. Alan Shark, for his views on state and local government collaboration, issues on the top of minds of local CIOs, and the vision behind their recently announced co-location plans with NACo. 

Please tell us about PTI membership.

Our membership is mostly cities and counties across the US. And while we have a few large cities like New York, Dallas and large counties like Los Angeles and Alameda counties – there are more members that are mid-size cities and counties. [PTI membership] is a very interesting cross section of technology minded people in local government throughout the U.S.

PTI has been around 42 years and has become quite an institution. Over the years our mission has changed only a little bit. We were formed in the 70s not just to represent CIOs. We were formed to really look at technology and be the go between for what technology can do versus how governments can embrace it. In the last 12 years, we’ve kind of focused more on the CIO, very much as NASCIO has done. Even though our names are so different, we really are very much the ASCIO of NASCIO – what I mean by that is most of the people that are active [members] are CIOs with or without that title but with that function throughout local government in the country.

What issues are your members talking about these days?

Cybersecurity is number one. It has emerged from being a concern to almost a panic/alarm. The alarm bells have gone off and people are very concerned because cybersecurity keeps manifesting itself through all sorts of predacious malware including the epidemic that we keep reading and hearing about, ransomware.

Ransomware has taken a devastating toll on many local governments including public safety. They’re hitting the smaller units, [those] with the least amount of resources to protect themselves and this is really becoming a dilemma. So clearly, security [is an issue] and I’ll add risk management.

The question is, can you ever be secure enough? You have to weigh the need for mobility [with risk]. In many cases, local governments can find as 47 percent of their workforce in the field in one way or another especially when you count public safety.  With that kind of number, it is a challenge to control everything.

Risk management also takes into account making other people aware, policy makers in particular, about what the risk assessment is at any given time. I and our members find that public administrators speak in different languages. Technology folks speak in one language and they can talk about risk in terms of what we need to do but so often when a breach does occur, we find that mayors and county leaders will say something like, “Well, we didn’t know and if we had known, we would have taken more steps.” So now, we are working with our members to talk more about risk management and mitigation by talking in legal terms that resonate better with public managers. So [public managers] understand what risks/exposures might be at any given time.

Another growing issue is seeking and maintaining quality IT talent. When we are at various forums with our members, we hear a lot of problems associated with finding people, being able to pay them, being able to give them the challenges they’re looking for, and concern about the growing number of people of those who are now retiring. We worried about it and now it’s actually happening.  So we have a knowledge drain going out the door and we have a challenge bringing people in and finding people, and giving them the appropriate incentives can be a challenge given the civil service environment that everybody needs to operate under. And there are a lot of subparts to this.

We are [also] hearing complaints [from our members] that because of sensitivity of data and access to IT systems, many IT applicants have to go through pretty strict background checks and security clearances. There’s a backlog in many local governments to complete these checks, sometimes taking up to 3 months. By then, we’re actually hearing stories of people losing candidates because they can’t wait that long. Not that there’s anything wrong; [local governments] cannot process clearances quick enough. It’s an interesting dilemma and something that is now on our radar screens because of retirement, the changing nature of technology, and a growing economy where people can make significantly more money in the private sector.

PTI has a lot of statistics regarding various aspects of IT, what issues would you like to highlight?

We are getting a lot of questions because many public managers are wondering – are they getting their money’s worth from IT? I think it’s a post-recession kind of thinking because many governments have not fully recovered. We’ve lost people, we’re doing more with less or much more with much less and it’s raising questions like: do we have the right amount of staff?

Two things are going on: one, many of our CIOs are being asked to justify their budgets both in terms of operational expense, capital expense, and human capital. At the same time, many of our members are trying to use metrics to rationalize or justify their need for more people to fill in the gaps to make up for some of the losses or to bring in people for newer applications

The holy grail right now is: Are there metrics that make sense? If I know if I’m a city or county of a certain budget and size, I should have so many staff per $100k or $1m. We’ve been studying this for the last dozen years and the answer is no, there isn’t. But I think we’re starting to figure out a baseline from which we can begin to do this.

With our infographic and survey [data] we can map out where the similarities may be in terms of [staff] size to see where the anomalies may be. Why might someone have a staff of 20 when someone [else] has a staff of 10 and the budget is 4 times larger? One part of it is budget and staff size but there are many variables that we get into; we need to avoid the stampede toward simple thinking here. It’s far more complex – part of it is the age of equipment. Where are you in terms of the useful life of IT equipment? If you’re maintaining very old, legacy equipment, it probably takes more human capital and therefore more people. If you have some younger people, their productivity may be higher. I think businesses always struggled to measure productivity generally, but in the technology world, if you have people that are constantly putting out fires and helpdesks, then the question is – is that a problem of systems, poor communication or maybe the governance can be adjusted to make more people responsible to fix some of the simple stuff themselves. I think this is a trend that will alleviate some of the tensions that exist today for local government CIOs. 

How is cross jurisdictional collaboration happening and what are some successes you have seen?

When I came to PTI 12 years ago, the relationship to most [local] CIOs to their state CIO was almost zero. And worse, it could be negative, “They won’t do anything for me,” or “It’s a terrible relationship.” I think we have seen an enormous change in that area. We’ve worked with NASCIO on webinars and other events to really promote how states can become a better resource for local governments and how governments can work better with state government agencies in the executive branch. We see improvements there in a number of states.

At the local level, [collaboration] has become much slower because CIOs are so overwhelmed with putting out fires. We ask a question almost every year of our members – how much time do you spend [conducting] strategic planning versus operational concerns? And the answer usually is: I’m lucky if I have 5-7 percent of my time to really think and plan. That is very alarming.  That number varies over time but the bottom line is, that number has never gone above 12 percent. That means there are an awful lot of people putting out fires and problem solving but not enough time strategic planning to say, “How can we leverage what we have?”

For the larger jurisdictions, those that have a good compliment of staff and have figured out how to navigate the maze, they’ve done interesting things. I see this more with counties because in many parts of the country, counties overlap many cities. We see [county] data centers that have excess capacity and they’re going back to [other] local government units and saying, “Let us be your cloud.” That seems to be an easy, low hanging fruit solution.

Another area [ripe for collaboration] is GIS. People are finally realizing that for collaboration between cities and counties, GIS is a good place to start because that’s really become a centralized planning tool. The more active, quality layers you have, the better incident response, situational awareness you have. With GIS now moving to the cloud, which to me is a game changer, I think we’ll see more collaboration there.

[What still] surprises me is all the other jurisdictions in the locality that are still not working together. You might have a court, library, school system, and maybe even multiple school systems and each one has a technology enterprise and they’re not talking to each other. So as a best practice we are trying to encourage our members to think beyond their jurisdictions and start to plan and share broadband solutions, which makes the most sense, and figure out where common expertise may lie. I think we’re going to see greater economies of scale but it’s not happening yet.

Speaking of cross-jurisdictional collaboration, what are examples of cites/counties collaborating with State CIOs? 

As a local government person, the first thing I hear is, “What is the state going to do for me that I can’t do for myself?” The low hanging fruit might be a common email platform or maybe helping to navigate a statewide GIS master system for planning. Or it could be equipment i.e. the idea of centralized purchasing.

In some cases like Michigan, they took creative approach by saying to localities, “You figure out how you’re going to collaborate. We’ll make sure you receive funding but you’ve got to be the ones figuring out how to work with each other and if that means working with us so be it.” Sometimes the greatest creativity is among the jurisdictions and not necessarily with the state but this is still an uncharted area.

We see [state and local collaboration] in equipment and software purchases, website design, PCI compliance, and on a larger scale with broadband planning and deployment. FirstNet is a great example of coordination where states can play a leadership role but there’s got to be buy-in and benefit to local governments. Email services might be another. Those are just a couple of examples.

PTI will soon move in with NACo, what is the vision behind this?  

It’s an interesting story because the National Association of Counties (NACo), the National League of Cities (NLC), the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and a number of other organizations were actually the ones who formed PTI in the early 70s. They did so at a time when technology was more of a mystery to public officials, when IT systems were large and complex and IT was unchartered territory. These organizations came together and with a grant from the National Science Foundation and other funding sources, created PTI. But now, 43 years later, we have come full circle. Yes, [PTI has] become independent but it’s so hard to run a small (or large) nonprofit in today’s economy. We have a whole generation coming in that do not like to pay dues. They like to pay for services and are reluctant to pay dues. That’s perhaps the new thinking of millennials and we’re seeing some of that.

What we have done and thanks to Matt Chase’s leadership, [NACo’s executive director for the past 4 years], he had a vision that I fully embrace and support and if it wasn’t for his vision we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. Matt had many more years left on his own lease when he realized that NLC was moving because they had to. Matt and new executive director of NLC said, “Let’s create something really special almost like the Hall of the States for local government.” They developed incentives and encouragements to bring in organizations to co-exist in a central location with the idea of greater collaboration, being able to share services, and share in talent. The timing is perfect. We were looking for a home through an association management environment and now, NACo will be serving in that capacity.

PTI will move in to [the building] in the middle of February. The boards of both organizations have approved it. [Because our] boards have approved it, our memberships feel it’s a done deal and it will be.

PTI’s board will remain totally independent. I will remain as executive director as will our core staff. [We will be] under a management agreement where a lot of the accounting, membership processing, those kinds of things are handled by NACo. We in turn will be working on NACo’s CIO summits for their two meetings. We’ve been asked to play an instrumental role so we’re happy to do so. We’ve done so in the past but we’re going to play a more active role. My hope is that we can serve, ideally, as the technology resource for both NLC and for NACo and hopefully even for the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) which is also located in this new location. The timing could not be better. The need for technology leadership has never been greater.

Technology is at such a critical juncture right now in terms of cloud, security, people, training etc. We have some terrific research and we also have certifications and we expect to and have been asked to expand that. We have a certification class for city/county CIOs and we now expanded that to include a certification for CIO leaders in the public sector which has been very popular. We are working on digital service delivery so that will be another certification and there are a few others that we have on the drawing board that we will add to this training component for greater professional development.

We also want to continue with our city county summits which we’ve done in the past with the active involvement of NACo and NLC.

Is there anything u want our state CIOs to know?

In talking to state CIOs, the thing that strikes me the most is the similarities and not differences. That’s why I get excited when we work with NASCIO, there are so many similar things. I think you’ll see that when we reveal our [Top 10] survey, it is really based on NASCIO’s [Top 10 survey] in terms of issues because [we share common] issues. The question is how/what do [locals] rank versus state governments. We shall see but in the past couple of years, the first five have tracked [with NASCIO’s Top 10] by 99 percent. We really have more in common I think there’s a real need to interact more and that’s why we’re happy to co-locate PTI’s main CIO summit, our annual event, with NASCIO’s annual event. I think it’s an important opportunity for cross mingling and possibly cross-program sharing.

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