'It's less about our ERP and more about open data'
Alameda County CIO Tim DuPuis is in an interesting position. His county is home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and University of California Berkeley campus, while San Francisco and Silicon Valley are just across bay -- so DuPuis rarely has to argue for the importance of IT and innovation in local government. That same proximity, however, means county IT is held to a very high standard, making recruiting and retaining tech talent ridiculously difficult. (DuPuis recently managed to hire an IT leader who was weighing a competing offer from NetFlix.)
At the recent Public Technology Institute conference in Salt Lake City, DePuis spoke with GCN Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider about the priorities and expectations for a CIO in such a high-tech county. The answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
What's the focal point for your team right now? What's coming next for IT in Alameda County?
DuPuis: We have a big push around innovation, and that's really being led by our board and by our county administrator. We took just a step back about a month or so ago, to say, "Where have we been?" We had gone on this innovation journey for about the last 10 years. We had brought futurists in, talking about the future generation, millennials coming in, and now we're there.
The big push is OK, now that we've gotten to this point, what do the next 10 years look like? Where should we be focusing our innovation? Should it be around the millennials, should it be around something internal, should it be around open data and what it does for the community?
And since the answer was "it's all of that," how do you put some order to that, and how do you maintain that energy that you've created. So that's been a big focus.
As you move forward, is more time going to entirely new ventures, or is it about building onto and integrating into legacy systems? How much is blue sky versus working with the tools that are already in the toolbox?
DuPuis: It's a combination is what we're seeing, but what I really like is that because we have this push for innovation at all levels of the government, we've done a few things. We've had internal hackathons, we recently just finished up an engagement with Google with a public/private partnership with them that helped bring in 10x thinking.
But what it's done is brought light to areas where employees are saying, "I can think of new ideas on making things better, but they think traditional hierarchy. I can't get it through the hierarchy." Bringing it through these non‑traditional events, it's showing people that we have an opportunity to change, and we can break down those barriers.
There's been a number of things that we've put in place that were just internal process improvements, but it's equaled hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings for us. It breaks down the traditional barriers.
You're obviously about to bring in ideas from outside, with public-private partnerships. But how much are you able to learn from what other cities or other counties are doing? And are there wholesale technologies and solutions that you're able to borrow or emulate? Or is it more the sounding board side of things?
DuPuis: It's important to stay in contact with your peers. We work in our bubbles, and we spend our days within our certain culture, and to be able to see and hear how people are addressing it in different ways, and being able to get that strength in numbers, is very useful. To hear some folks are centralizing, others are decentralizing.
We also know that our leadership is going off to their peers, and they're hearing it as well. So to be able to say that I talked to the CIO from that county while you were talking to their leadership, and I can pick up the phone and call them and get more detail, is very powerful.
What about collaboration with colleagues at the federal and state levels? Or are things at the county level just at a different scale?
DuPuis: Definitely at the state level we've been doing a lot, being able to leverage the negotiated contracts that they have. I'm expecting that continue, especially as we go to cloud‑based services. We're all looking for the same thing, and we can get the power of the group as opposed to the individual CIO, I think we can leverage things more and learn more.
How do you define the CIO job? What are you being judged against?
DuPuis: We use the term "keep-the-lights-on business," so the largest part of our budget and the largest part of our team is focused on that. Whether that's our ERP, or our criminal justice system, or our property system, that's the bulk of the just nuts and bolts work that's going out. People just assume that's going to happen.
If I keep that humming, that just gets me to the first phase. It's what do we do above and beyond in terms of innovation and staying relevant. That's really where I'm gauged -- how am I doing in terms of partnering with the different departments? How am I doing with working with the county administrator and the board to push initiatives around innovation? How am I doing in terms of getting the word out? And how am I doing in the area of open data, which is a whole new area for us?
Those are the things that they're really looking at. When I have a conversation with the county administrator, it's less about our ERP and more about open data. It's more about when's our next hackathon going to be, and what is that innovation that we're focused on next?
If you had a magic wand to wave, what's one resource you wish you could beef up to move yourself further toward that success level.
DuPuis: I'm going to answer it in two ways. I think all of us are kept up at night about security, so a greater investment and leadership there -- which we're making.
Then in terms of innovation, I think it's working closely with county leadership to really define that. There's a role for a leader in that, we haven't yet hired anybody called a chief innovation officer.
We are creating that department, but we're trying to discover what that means. It's very gray. Is that role around open data? Is that role around creating partnerships out in public with different businesses? Is it an economic development driver? That's the area where we really need to focus and really discover what we want it to be.
Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.
Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.
Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.
Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.