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2021 Digital Cities Winners Leveraged Tech Amid Pandemic

The top performers in this year’s Digital Cities Survey from the Center for Digital Government pushed through the challenges of COVID-19 while continuing to innovate and engage with residents.

This year’s honorees in the Digital Cities Survey from the Center for Digital Government* all battled through the extraordinary challenges of COVID-19, leveraging technology to ramp up remote work while also creating new avenues for citizen engagement.

Across large and small cities alike, IT played a key role in ensuring that government continued to deliver needed services. In some cases, the technologists stepped up to respond directly to the health crisis, for example in supporting timely and effective vaccine rollouts.

Overall, cities that gave top-down strategic and budgetary support to their IT leadership reaped rewards, as CIOs and others rallied their troops in the face of exceptionally challenging circumstances.

Shawnee, Kan., 1st Place, Up to 75,000 Population Category

Ten years ago, the city of Shawnee started putting infrastructure in place to support an increasingly mobile workforce. That effort paid unexpected dividends amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“I always envisioned mobility as being about convenience,” said Director of Information Technology Mel Bunting. “I never envisioned it would become a necessity — literally overnight.”

Thanks to that early investment in virtual desktop architecture, the city was able to switch over seamlessly to a remote work environment. There was no need to reconfigure the networks or to invest in additional hardware. The pump had already been primed.

“It shows that strategic planning doesn't have to be overly complex,” Bunting said. “Our plan was very simple: to focus on mobility. We had embraced that strategic vision, and we had already made all the right investments.”

Where other governments used CARES Act money to ramp up mobility, Shawnee’s IT team was able to invest that funding in expanding an existing capability. They built out virtual conference rooms, for example, and added more robust capabilities to their virtual public meeting spaces.

At the same time, the team continued work on a digital citizen portal, which went live in April. With support from the Community Development and Public Works departments, among others, the team took a range of permitting and licensing functions online at a time when citizens urgently needed new forms of access to government.

The IT experts also devoted time and energy to ramping up geospatial offerings. They added a range of tools and services to enable citizens to make fuller use of the city’s GIS data. This was a direct benefit of the city’s forward-looking mobility posture.

“Because we did not have to give a lot of resources to moving our organization into a remote work environment, we were able to continue our strategic effort to expand our GIS platform, to provide more services and more information online, to expand on our dashboards,” Bunting said.

For Bunting, the key takeaway of the past year is about agility. It’s not just that the IT department has to be nimble in the face of changing circumstance, he said. Rather, it’s about agility in support of specific business outcomes.

“We always want to work as a partner to our departments, to understand what their technology needs are and make sure we're agile in that space,” he said.

“It’s all about collaboration and communication,” he explained. “We need to be able to adapt to the changing environment in a way that supports our stakeholders and business partners, so that we can always be working toward common goals.”

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

Westminster, Colo., 1st Place, 75,000-124,999 Population Category

With the rush to remote work, the IT team in Westminster, Colo., sprang into action. They bought laptops at a furious pace and ramped up licensing on a range of collaborative tools. As much as this was a technology push, it was equally a logistical undertaking.

“We had to organize who was going to get laptops, and why,” said IT Services Administrator Larry Garlick. “There were people who had desktops, and we needed to get them LogMeIn accounts to connect to their machines at work. And there were all the peripherals to organize, the scanners and monitors and printers.”

It helped that the department had already begun a shift to laptops and remote connectivity, even before the pandemic kicked things into high gear. “We already had a lot of things in place,” Garlick said. “We were already using LogMeIn, we already had laptops. We just needed to do more of it.”

The effort proved especially taxing for the support technicians, and Garlick gives them high marks for jumping into the fray quickly and effectively.

Even as IT staffers rolled out remote work, they also had to ramp up collaborative tools for those workers. Here too, early investment paid off. The IT shop had already been using Microsoft Teams internally, to gauge its usefulness, and with the pandemic they began upgrading those licenses, eventually making Teams the city’s ubiquitous tool for collaboration.

Things went so smoothly, in fact, that the IT team was able to execute on a key initiative that had begun pre-COVID-19 — an effort to upgrade the public safety computer-aided dispatch and records management systems. It was imperative to get that done, since public safety was still tied to Windows 7, and the operating system couldn’t be upgraded until the work on CAD and RMS was complete.

With the modernized systems in place, “we are doing a much better job of segregating our public safety data center from our main data center,” Garlick said. “We needed to do that for reasons of security and privacy. It also gives us better security overall, with public safety records now isolated from the other city systems.”

While COVID-19 put new pressures on the team, it also served as a catalyst to drive an all-hands effort.

“Normally we have our daily work that we have to get done: I'm deploying five machines today,” Garlick said. “With this, there was suddenly a larger purpose. It makes you keener on how you're dealing with things like time management. Everyone just becomes more focused.”

Top-down support also helped. City leaders for example acted fast to adjust policy so that people would be free to use those telework capabilities effectively.

“The city’s executive leadership was on board,” Garlick said. “We were able to offer solutions, and we collaborated with the city manager’s office to find the budget for it. They understood the situation, and they worked with us to make sure the money was available to get the things done.”

The innovations put in place during COVID-19 will continue to serve the citizens into the future. Take for example the ability to participate remotely in City Council meetings. “We built applications to give people the ability to communicate better, and those things are going to stay with us,” he said.

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

Future Ready
Technology leaders in Durham, N.C., had a full plate last year. In addition to supporting the push to telework, they were looking to harden cybersecurity, and to align IT processes and resources to help respond to social unrest due to national policing issues and national election security concerns.

A combination of standard operating procedures and strong IT governance processes helped the team to balance its varied needs. It helped, too, that technology staff had a seat at the table for the city's high-level strategic decisions, with direct ties between the CIO and city manager.

Strong IT governance helps to ensure the city is future ready: An emphasis on risk management and performance metrics situate IT for ongoing success. Likewise, the IT team’s focus on utilizing data, and a strong budget/project development process, will help to carry the city over future hurdles.

Collaborative efforts also have strong forward-looking emphasis. For example, projects with Duke University will help deliver Internet service to housing authority residents, ensuring future connectivity for historically underserved populations.

Corona, Calif., 1st Place, 125,000-249,999 Population Category

An early investment in virtual desktop infrastructure in the cloud put Corona, Calif., on a strong footing when the need arose to take the workforce remote.

“We had been piloting with Microsoft and with Citrix for probably two years, taking virtualized desktops and then putting them in the cloud versus on-premise, VDI-type deployments,” said CIO Chris McMasters.

When COVID-19 hit, “the pilot turned into full-blown project,” he said. “We just turned it up. And it meant we didn't have to go buy laptops, at a time when people were struggling to find those resources. We could do it on old computers, on home computers, whatever was available.”

As a result, the city turned almost 60 percent of its personnel into remote workers in the span of just a couple of days, with essentially no impact on city operations. “We really didn't miss a beat,” McMasters said. “People were just suddenly working from home.”

At the same time, the IT team made a major push to ensure the public had access to timely information. With rules and regulations in flux, they leveraged digital tools to provide citizens with up-to-date information.

“Our call center people were operating remotely,” McMasters said. “And we went live with various dashboards and data. How do we inform people of what the new rules are, what businesses are open? They were getting hit from so many sides with different information. So we produced a ton of different dashboards, combining that internal data with real-time information.”

In that respect, he said, the pandemic tasked the IT team to act almost as a first responder agency. “Emergency response is usually conducted by your fire and police departments,” he said. “In this case, it was IT that took on that role. We became a kind of virtual emergency operations center, interfacing with all the different departments.”

Even as that effort unfolded, the IT team still found time to finish work on its cybersecurity response plan. Prior to having that plan in place, “there was no formality to our cyber response, no consistent framework for how the city would execute in the face of an incident,” McMasters said.

With government increasingly the target of ransomware and other exploits, IT made the building of a cyber strategy a key priority. “We engaged Cisco Talos to help us develop a cybersecurity incident response plan across that city,” McMasters said. “Now we have a formal process in place. We know who and what to activate during different types of incidents, and we know how we will do remediation.”

It took a concerted effort on the part of IT personnel to meet these varied challenges. McMasters said the CIO can play a key role in rallying the troops in times of crisis.

“People come into government wanting to do good things for other people, but they don’t always see the big picture,” he said. “Someone might be coding all day in a cubicle, never understanding exactly how that impacts actual people. As the CIO, I try to connect them to those real-world outcomes, to show how they're impacting people. And then I enable them, giving them the power to execute on their great ideas.”

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

Long Beach, Calif., 1st Place, 250,000-499,999 Population Category

Long Beach, Calif., is one of only a handful of cities in the state with its own health department. As a result, the IT staff found themselves on the front lines in supporting the COVID-19 response.

In addition to putting the city workforce on a steady remote footing, the technology team also worked directly in support of health-care outcomes. For example, the technologists rolled out an online form for those seeking to be notified about vaccine availability. About 150,000 people took advantage of that, according to Director of Technology and Innovation/CIO Lea Eriksen.

The IT team also did a big education push to make residents aware of vaccine clinics. “We had YouTube videos that we produced in different languages,” Eriksen said. “We also created an internal application to guide the decision-making regarding where we would locate the mobile vaccination clinics — looking at demographics and COVID incident rates to make sure we were putting the clinics where they needed to be.”

To ensure their efforts were hitting the mark, the team also crowdsourced community input. “We wanted to get feedback on our messaging, to make sure there wasn’t any confusion about who is eligible for vaccines and how to sign up,” she said.

In support of the mobile clinics, the team rolled out about 200 Chromebooks in the span of a week, while also delivering a robust Wi-Fi capability, especially at the convention center, which served as a main vaccination site.

Being on the front lines of the medical response, “there was definitely stress,” Eriksen said. “But it also gave everyone a sense of purpose. Our health department director, she called us ‘public health heroes,’ and the team really liked hearing that.”

It helped that the city in 2019 had gone live with a first phase of its ERP modernization, while also opening a new data center in the new city hall. “We had experienced working together under pressure, and that really helped us as a department to address COVID,” she said.

In the midst of all this work, the IT team continued its push for digital inclusion, leveraging CARES Act funding to deploy hot spots in support of community connectivity. IT also partnered with the economic development office to improve digital access for small businesses, to help them ride out the economic downturn.

At the same time, the IT shop has supported the city’s efforts around racial equity and reconciliation.

“We’re disaggregating data by race to understand disparate impacts. And we've been working on a series of data-related challenges, including spinning up a new open data portal, as well as a survey tool to help deliver equitable surveying methods,” Eriksen said. “We also worked on analyzing emerging technology, to make sure that we're considering disparate impacts on people of color or other backgrounds.”

It takes a team effort to move forward on so many action items simultaneously.

“I'm at the table with the city manager and all the directors, listening to the needs and partnering to make sure that the right resources are there,” she said. “I also have really talented team members who are devoted to doing this work.”

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

San Jose, Calif., 1st Place, 500,000 or More Population Category

In the race to address pandemic-inspired needs, the IT leadership of San Jose, Calif., set themselves a number of key goals.

“We had to enable people to work in a suddenly remote context,” said CIO Rob Lloyd. “Second, we needed our teams to connect and collaborate in different ways. And third, we were going to reinvent some services — seizing on this as an opportunity to make things better for a different public.”

Ultimately, the team make major headway against all these goals. In terms of remote work, “we pivoted and made it possible for people to work wherever they are, using the same tools,” Lloyd said.

They also made strides in enhancing collaboration across city government. “One example is what we called Powered by People 2.0, an umbrella effort between IT, HR, Finance, facilities and others,” Lloyd said.

That effort aimed “to reinvent our routines and rituals so that we can be a more successful organization in this mode,” he said. “One thing coming out of that would be our business process automation, where we redesigned and shifted over 30 business processes to electronic, so that our staff and our public would have an easier time.”

On the third front, reinventing city services for a more digital public, the city looked to see where services were needed most. “There are parts of our community that are hurting, but they have had difficulties connecting in the past,” Lloyd said. “We wanted digital services to reach them better, so that they can participate in the public process.”

To close the gap, the city connected over 200,000 people to high-speed Internet. The IT team also made strides in overcoming a language barrier that had been a sticking point for some. “We have a big immigrant community, Silicon Valley has been very successful with that, but there are language challenges when you have that diverse community,” Lloyd said.

To ensure equal access, the city IT team worked with Google and SpringML to create AI-driven processes for handling encounters in English, Spanish and Vietnamese — the main spoken languages in San Jose.

“We created AI-based language translation that's over 95 percent accurate,” Lloyd said. “That is an automated function, that plus with Zoom, so that people can actually participate in the public meetings with the ability to hear and to speak at those meetings, without language being a major barrier.” The team is now making that AI training set available to other municipalities.

It took a team effort to bring these various initiatives to fruition, with the City Council and city management working hand in glove with IT to set priorities. This in turn allowed the IT shop to rewrite its strategic plan, with resilience foremost in mind.

“We've seen in the last two and a half years more disasters than ever,” Lloyd said. “That resilience factor is going to be important for local governments, now and into the foreseeable future.”

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company. Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.

To read about all winners in this year’s Digital Cities Survey:

Up to 75,000 Population Category
75,000-124,999 Population Category
125,000-249,999 Population Category
250,000-499,999 Population Category
500,000 or More Population Category

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