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County Chief Information Officer: ‘Be Innovative. Be Cost-Conscious’

An image of KC Roestenberg, CIO of Orange County, Calif., next to a quote that reads, "Rather than having these little organic IT shops, we're melding them into a more centralized technology that provides them rules-and-above functionality, security, throughput, reliability that they couldn't afford on their own."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

KC Roestenberg is chief information officer at the county of Orange, California’s third most populous county with around 3.2 million residents. He has had that role since July 8, replacing the county’s CIO of five years, Joel Golub, who joined Oracle’s Industry Strategy and Executive Outreach in June.

Roestenberg had been the county’s director of IT Shared Services and had worked with the county for many years in previous IT-related aerospace roles before joining the local government. He served a variety of departments before becoming CIO. Roestenberg’s education includes studies at the University of Phoenix. The technology leader has more to say on his work in the CIO’s Corner on the county’s website.

Find the county’s Quarterly IT Project Progress Reports here. In the most recent quarter for which information is available, July 1-Sept. 30, the county completed work on its Property Tax System and on the implementation of the OC TIME system, both of which were managed by the county’s Auditor-Controller. The county had 11 IT projects underway during the reporting period, one more than during the previous quarter, and its total budget dropped from $29.1 million to $27.9 million with rounding.

Industry Insider — California: As chief information officer at your organization, how do you describe your role? How have your role and responsibilities changed in recent years in terms of their intersection with IT and innovation?

Roestenberg: A little bit of background: Before I joined the county, I was with Lockheed Martin, Martin Marietta, (as an) IT outsourcer for the better part of 25 years. I was doing work for the county, and ultimately ended up being the regional director for IT outsourcing for the Orange County area with Lockheed Martin, and I joined the county about 16 years ago. All told between contractor experience with Orange County and then certainly my roles as a county employee, I’ve got just under 40 years of experience of working in all levels and departments of the county. I’ve got this kind of different view, it’s an interesting blend, and when you’re on the commercial side of IT outsourcing, you look at things very differently than maybe you look at them as a county employee. Being able to take those two experiences and blending it into our ability to be successful, I have to set priorities for the organization. Mine are actually very simple. We have an obligation to the taxpayers of Orange County to empower and enable the agencies that provide those services with technology. And newer technology as well as the utility-based infrastructure, so that we can provide the services that we need to provide to the county of Orange. From a mission statement perspective, it’s very clear. I think the other thing that I really want to focus on is, I’m not bleeding-edge technology. I’m not aerospace. All that we’re doing is making sure people can get the services they need. That being said, when innovation has a place and a benefit in ensuring that the agencies can do more with the resources they have, to serve the public, definitely interested in that. Looking for opportunities to reduce cost, right? When those come up, either through innovation or moving from technology A to technology B, we definitely look at that. A huge shift for us was from on-prem to cloud, but it does allow for a lot more functionality for our end users. Certainly, some of that was compelled by the COVID-19 situation. And having to deal with that once-in-a-lifetime thing. But yeah, so mission statement’s pretty good. Be innovative. Be cost-conscious, make sure we’re taking care of our agency’s business and customer service. I’m very keen on making sure that we meet, we have developed service levels and that the expectations that we have on our clients, if we have to modify those service levels, we do that. And I think first and foremost for me, coming to work doesn’t need to be onerous. I mean that. Work can be fun. Especially in our area. When you’re an accountant, not a lot of exciting things happen. When you’re in IT, there’s a lot of exciting things that can happen. Good, bad, more ugly. Trying to set an environment that people enjoy coming to work in, I think, really makes them more productive and allows us to improve our customer service through our end users.

IICA: Does your organization have a strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? How big a role do you personally play in writing that strategic plan?

Roestenberg: We’ve done strategic plans over the years. It’s a mixed bag for me. Part of me says technology changes so quickly in dynamics, in the business, especially, we’re running 24 different businesses. We’re flying planes out of John Wayne Airport. We’re arresting people, we’re providing social services, we’re collecting taxes. We’re doing forensics, we have a DNA lab. For me, developing a strategic plan ... backs into a strategic financial plan, right? And I know they are two different things, but from my perspective, looking at where we’re at — let me give you a great example. Probably in the last seven or eight years, we’ve almost (doubled) the user community that we support as central IT. I don’t want to call it centralization. It was more of a synergistic migration where agencies such as social services, public works, community resources, public defender, treasurer/tax collector, waste and recycling used to have their own IT shops, and they’re now more gravitating to central IT, which is my organization. We have a user base of about 16,000. Our service delivery model is somewhat eclectic, still around the county. We provide somewhere around 150 different services from voice to management of email boxes and what-have-you. Some agencies like the (district attorney) DA, public defender, sheriff’s department, they are users of a network environment, security environment, voice systems, but they manage a lot of their other stuff internally. But the other agencies are all coming over and so they made a capital investment with taxpayer money on infrastructure. We weren’t going to go in there and just wholesale swap everything out. We need to allow that capitalization investment to play itself out. The first wave is to certainly onboard several hundred employees into an organization and now provide central IT, and that is IT-focused. But then, we don’t want to lose the quality of service that agencies got from a dedicated IT team either. And that’s a difficult blend. Now, taking that and saying, “look, you used to have on-prem servers, you used to have on-prem VM, you used to have on-prem (virtual private network) VPN, you used to have on-prem storage and backup systems.” Migrating them to enterprise systems is what we’re doing. Rather than having these little organic IT shops, we’re melding them into a more centralized technology that provides them rules-and-above functionality, security, throughput, reliability that they couldn’t afford on their own. Strategically what we’re doing is, we’re taking these older equipment infrastructures and melding them into a centralized environment. Strategically, certainly, moving towards more of a cloud presence, whether that be compute, backup and storage, even security layer. We’re looking at the end-user devices, putting them in more of a standard format, managing 15,000 laptops and PCs versus (virtual desktop infrastructure) VDI back-end definitely has some promise there, but there’s some complex legacy applications that are providing that. That other wave is getting away from on-prem applications, customized applications, looking more at (commercial off-the-shelf) COTS and if at all possible, (software-as-a-service) SaaS options. That gets us away from, ‘Oh, I didn’t have budget to upgrade my application, and now I’m running out unsupported hardware and unsupported code.’ That migration of on-prem to cloud is definitely our main priority. There are situations where cloud doesn’t make sense so we still have a sizable data center. But that’s kind of our strategic plan.

IICA: What big initiatives or projects are coming up? What sorts of developing opportunities and RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Roestenberg: I think we had a wave late last year. We’re finishing up now. Probably half my staff are contract staff; that contract goes through 2026. We’ve gone through a couple of iterations where we’ve determined that we’re probably going to go to RFP just because it’s been a while. Generally, we are looking at renewing or refreshing some of our external firewalls. We want to make sure we’re making a prudent decision on either to upgrade again with the existing vendor or maybe look at some of the other vendors. There is an (enterprise resource planning system) ERP. Central IT doesn’t do the application portion of an ERP; it’s done by the Auditor-Controller. But there’s an ERP RFP that’s going to be going out shortly. That’s probably significant in nature. Probably one of the more significant. There really isn’t anything large looming out there from an IT perspective. Either we’ve solidified deals that are going to run another two or three years or we just renew based on our need unless there’s a better product to look at.

IICA: In your opinion, what should local government be doing more of in technology?

Roestenberg: Obviously one of the largest concerns, at least in state and local government, is the aging workforce. Dealing (with that) without having to potentially impact services and reliability of technology, that’s always a concern for us. Being able to attract the talent that you need to sustain the workforce that is required to do what we do. And looking at innovative ways of doing that. Certainly, cloud computing helps there in some ways. Looking at contract staff certainly has been a good benefit for the county of Orange. But you can’t deplete your own understanding of technology to a point where you don’t know what you’re doing. There needs to be an eclectic group of technology folks on that back end that are managing those contracts on a day-to-day basis, that are looking at the business needs, that are tracking incidents and service requests and all of that back-end business. If you’re asking me what are some of the top priorities for us in the next year or two, (one) is really looking at innovative ways to provide IT services and to attract talent at state and local government levels that can backfill. That in and of itself is a top priority. Certainly, ensuring that the services that we provide and the technology that we provide are cost conscious and sustainable. We don’t want these huge waves of, “Hey, you’ve got to buy $20 million worth of gear for the next five years.” That’s not how we operate. We slow roll these things so that the agencies have predictable spend on what their IT costs are going to be as a service. Moving it more from a service, from a capital ownership perspective as I shared earlier, to more of a service blend. And doing that does help, in some cases, get us to where we need to be. And then certainly things like COVID. This is not just a county thing. This is people out there, being able to service the public when these unique things come up is always a challenge. Broadband and availability — broadband, that clearly came up during COVID. Orange County, luckily, is such a dense population that broadband as a utility is widely available. But in some components of our county, it’s not affordable. How do you take some of the measures that the state and federal governments are doing to help that and communicate that out to the environment, out to the public? When some aspects of the public may not be comfortable doing work with government for whatever reason. We’re putting a lot of focus on that.

IICA: How do you define “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Roestenberg: It’s interesting, and I don’t want to compare (us) to some of the other counties. Obviously, Orange County does have the resources to take advantage of digital transformation and all aspects. Take intra-county. I think we’ve done a really good job of ensuring that the agencies have the tools to do what they need to do. When it comes to the community, and it’s not unlike any other community in the United States, we have a huge population that’s got money. I mean, the average home price in Orange County is $800,000. And a medium low price. But for that to all sustain itself, you need people at the lower level of the economic scale, Disneyland and restaurants and those kinds of things. It does pose a very interesting dynamic when you look at it from the public standpoint. I can tell you that in 80 percent of our county, you have your choice of three or four Wi-Fi providers where you can get good service. Similarly, we probably have eight or nine home Internet providers that can do the same thing. We have a Korean community, a Vietnamese community. We have a Hispanic community. Orange County has a very unique, cosmopolitan community, mostly through immigration. Some folks are very comfortable with technology. And you have these young people that are coming in. Again, I’ll kind of reference us as a provider of services to the community. I think the county’s done a really good job of ensuring that the technology we provide makes our services available to a very large swath of our residents, 3.2 million residents. The coordination between cities and counties, I think, can always be better. I think our supervisors do a really good job of driving that. But when you’re dealing with cities like Anaheim, they’re a county in and of themselves, within the county. I think from our perspective, we’re doing a good job. Again, my view is very different. I don’t need to be bleeding-edge. I don’t want to be bleeding-edge because it isn’t what is needed to serve the community best. But that whole digital divide and digital transformation, I think just from internal, just at a very minute level, all of our document processing now, for the most part, is done digitally. And if it isn’t, we have systems that will take paper docs and put it into a digital backbone. Retention periods, data classification, taking that data now that you have more control over it electronically, we’re investing quite a bit of effort in doing that with agencies. We’re keeping data that needs to be kept, and not keeping data that doesn’t, because that costs money.

IICA: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Roestenberg: Obviously, I would be on the phone all day long if I met with vendors. But being a vendor for 25 years, I also appreciate the value that they bring to letting us know about technology. I think first and foremost, we have an online bidding system. I’m not going to make any technology decisions or buy decisions without going through a formal RFP, in most cases, and then get board approval for those things. With something really innovative, that’s unique to them, that is groundbreaking, not just from their perspective, but from an industry perspective — having that sent to me in an email so that I can evaluate it if it applies to us, and then we would reach out to them and meet with them, that is probably the most effective way of doing it.

IICA: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Roestenberg: I think IT’s kind of been this back-end utility, “They’re never letting me do anything. They’re always not helping me.” COVID was the best thing that could ever happen to giving IT a visibility of their worth. Our ability to take 16,000 staff — or at least a subset, not everybody could work from home — and within a month and in some cases within a week (have them work remote). Because we prioritized the more critical agencies like health-care and social services when that hit, being able to do that and still allow the agencies to provide the community with the services, I think, was the most significant thing we’ve probably done in 30 years. Unique to IT, that was a significant achievement. And then, building off of all the cultural change that that’s now enabled, good and bad — I’m not saying everything was good — but now taking advantage of what we’ve learned, the positive aspects of that, to further allow us to provide better services through the county of Orange, I think, was a very, very significant thing.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.