It is not unusual for visitors from South Korea, Madagascar and other countries around the world to be wandering through the hallways of the government building in Fairfax County, Virginia. Nor is it uncommon for David J. Molchany, the county’s chief information officer, to be off speaking to technology officials in Australia, Italy or Estonia. That’s what happens when your county is recognized internationally as an example of best practices in e-government, and others want to learn your secrets.
There really are no secrets, however. The county excels in technology by being innovative and keeping focused on high-level goals. An energetic pair of technology officials dedicated to the task complement each other’s roles well: Molchany and Wanda M. Gibson, director of the Information Technology Department. The two talk, if not every day, then many times a week. Things can change rapidly, in both the technological and political arenas, and they want to be able to handle any unpleasant surprises quickly and efficiently.
Molchany, 42, and Gibson, 49, take a “Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside” approach, says County Executive Anthony Griffin. Molchany provides the big-picture vision, with input from steering and policy committees, and Gibson focuses on delivering the technology. “Dave’s very good at building relationships, not just in the organization but at the state level and with peers statewide,” Griffin says. “Wanda is the consummate professional on the inside, pushing the appropriate buttons within the technology department, constantly looking at how the organization can be responsive to the county.”
Together, they work to get agencies’ goals to fit the strategic vision. There is a focus on measuring performance, modernizing systems so they’re easy for customers to use, training employees and collaborating with all levels of government. They must be doing something right because the approach keeps bringing accolades to the suburban county outside Washington, D.C., and the visitors keep streaming in.
An affluent jurisdiction with a population of more than 1 million, Fairfax has a high percentage of households connected to the Internet. But there are still plenty of residents who don’t have a computer at home. For that reason, in addition to being offered online and through wireless devices, services are also available at kiosks in libraries, malls and elsewhere, and by telephone via interactive voice response, so citizens can do business with the county round the clock. Its Web site gets 625,000 visits a month, while the interactive voice response system gets more than 800,000 calls annually.
Fairfax also was one of the first to redesign its Web site so that it was organized not by internal government structure but rather by constituent interest. The redesign of 15,000 pages within six months took a tremendous effort. The IT department was able to execute the plan efficiently by including all the stakeholders and managers in departments during the planning stages.
The county’s IT department faces the typical challenge of working with multiple agencies to make sure they’re not duplicating systems. At one point, inspector groups in three different departments requested wireless handheld devices to do their jobs. Fire, health and building inspectors all play a role in the inspection process for land development. Molchany brought them together so that instead of each department building its own system, they worked together on one.
Taking an enterprise-wide view is paramount for this CIO, who left a job with Sallie Mae and decided to come to the county for a year until he figured out what to do next. That year has stretched into eight now. The team of Gibson and Molchany has been in existence for nearly five years, ever since Molchany hired her away from neighboring Arlington County, where she was CIO.
The pair has learned how to be flexible and nimble in meeting customers’ demands and responding to a changing economy. They’re good at understanding the limits on budgets and the importance of making wise investments. They’ve been particularly effective at identifying agency priorities that meet county objectives. In the early days, the county had a tendency to “grab more than we could swallow at any given time,” Griffin says. Projects would stretch out for too long.
The county is not content to sit back now and review its successes. “We don’t settle,” Gibson says. “We’re always looking out for what we can do better.”
— Ellen Perlman
Photos by Jeffrey Prehn