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County CIO: ‘How Can We Engage With Residents?’

An image of Lynn Fyhrlund, CIO of San Bernardino County, next to a quote that reads: "Let's talk through the process first before we even think about applying technology. The technology just makes your process go faster. It makes it smoother. If you have a bad process, you're going to do bad things faster."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Lynn Fyhrlund is chief information officer at San Bernardino County, a role he has had since May; this interview occurred near the end of his first 100 days there. Fyhrlund was previously CIO at Milwaukee County in Milwaukee for nearly four years, during more than six years at the county. His previous roles include nearly 25 years in the U.S. Army, most recently as a command sergeant major for nearly five years, ending in November 2013.

Fyhrlund has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Lakeland University and a Master’s of Business Administration from the Wisconsin School of Business. He has a master’s certificate in project management from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Industry Insider — California: As CIO 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?

Fyhrlund: My role at San Bernardino County is to be the leader of innovation technology. You come into a county that has about 22,000 employees and 20,000 square miles that we cover. When you’re in an organization of that size and you’re CIO, you’re there to help along advanced technology, and how are we going to use it, how do we advise departments? I think my first 100 days has really been meeting the entire division. Learning about the environment here. How have we been operating? Where are we going? And where do we want to go? My upfront thing was come in, listen, look around at what’s going on, identify our risks. Look at your risks right away and say, “OK, how are we going to mitigate those risks?” What’s our future plan to get in there and start moving the organization in the direction to match the county’s vision? Those are things I think, in the first hundred days, for any CIO to come in, listen to what’s going on, understand the environment that you’re in, and how can you bring value to that organization? Then, the second part of your question. I think what we saw before I was here, before COVID, you saw IT departments helping the business along, but trying to tell business, “Hey, look what we can do.” And the business would be, well, they were cautious about things that we should implement. COVID accelerated all that. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” Because all of a sudden, it was “Hey, IT, what can you do?” And IT met the challenge. It brought people to [things] that seem common now. How do we collaborate with people? We made it very easy to collaborate with people. I think technology’s changed dramatically along those lines. And I think now, as a business, you can see, how are we going to work in the future with a collaborative environment, with employees all over the place? How do we enforce security along those lines there, how do we allow collaboration? How do we enable the go-getters? And how do you lift up other people to help them use the technology? You’ve got to make sure the technology you’re deploying can be used and can be maximized. Those are things I think have changed, from when I first started to where I am now. I say we went from [the] back office to the front office. I tell my technology leaders now that we’re not here to take orders. We’re here to provide the business of what’s going on. This is what you can do with technology. What’s the art of the possible? What can we do and how can we help the business get there? I think where technology is today and what they’re looking for in technology leaders is, how can we be in the forefront? How can we help the business get there? And at the same time, as us technology leaders that are saying, “Hey, business, this is what we can do,” what are we doing for our employees and our technologists to get in there to help us? Those are things I think have changed over time.

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?

Fyhrlund: What we have is we have a CAO [chief administrative officer] vision right now. Part of that is, OK, how are we matching to that? That’s my next step as CIO, is to create the IT strategy to match it back to what the vision of the county is along the lines there. I have the Countywide Vision Statement: “We envision a complete county that capitalizes on diversity of its people, its geography and its economy to create a broad range of choices for its residents in how they live, work, and play. ...” I know I talked a lot about IT alone being back office. We are now innovating up front. It’s like, how can we enable our residents, how do we get out there? There’s things that I’m still part of myself, in the county of Milwaukee, something called “Techquity.”* I’m on a board with the United Way, and we work on urban broadband devices in people’s hands, train on that within Milwaukee County. And some of those things, I look at our vision and that’s what it’s saying out here. It’s like, how do we make sure that everyone that lives here within the county has an opportunity to thrive, right? To rise up, to have a great life, to work and play. And I think from an IT aspect of it, that’s what we get to look at. You’ll hear some of the projects coming down, like how do we get Wi-Fi in the parks? Or, what are we doing to enable our residents? Those are things I’m also looking forward to getting into out here, is how can I also help, get on committees and engage the community; and how do we enable the community to do telehealth, to do education? How do we help the residents get there? I do understand, too, being a technologist, you can’t make everything technology. We also have to make sure there’s a door for the people that are just not technically enabled. How do we make sure they’re getting their service too, and they’re not being left behind?

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?

Fyhrlund: There’s a lot of things going on within the county. There’s our data center modernization. We’re looking at sustainability within the county, how can we make sure we’re delivering high-end services with our data center. I’m looking at our infrastructure alone, that’s internal to the IT department. It helps the entire county, but it’s really for us, so we can get to that next level. There’s another project that’ll be coming up, and this is well-known: We’re going to replace our human capital management system. That’s a big lift and I have the experience. I’ve done it when I was a programmer. I also did it when I was a CIO. Those are huge, monumental tasks that will stress you along the lines. [Updating] human capital management, I think, is a great thing for us. But I think it’s very important for us to take a step back and look at our processes, where our processes are now and where do we want to be, find the software that matches what we want to do, and make sure that [it’s what] the end users need. We have a long runway. We currently use PeopleSoft. PeopleSoft’s going away, it’s like 10 years out, but we know we have to get off the system at some point. Another one that I talked about was public Wi-Fi in our parks. I think one of the big things or challenges when you’re San Bernardino County is, at 20,000 square miles, we have parks that are in the middle of the desert. How do you find Internet access in the middle of the desert? I think those are great things, our team gets a solution and [tries] to figure out, how are we going to provide a Wi-Fi access area?

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

Fyhrlund: I think partly, we should be looking at how should we be engaging our residents. How can we provide that technical [support]. These are spitball ideas. On tourism, when people come to a county this size, could we [let them know], how many people are currently there? You’re from California, the traffic out here is tremendous. What can we do to cut down on that? I think we have gone from internal-facing, just keeping the lights on, to being able to provide those services. So, how can we engage with residents, help those residents out and improve their lives?

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?

Fyhrlund: Digital transformation, it’s something that IT has always been doing. I think it’s how are we using technology to transform how we do business. That’s digital transformation. There’s a lot of things we’ve been doing that we accelerated during COVID and now we’re looking at, OK, how should we apply technology? I’m a tech guy. I’m more about COTS [commercial off the shelf], buying stuff off the shelf first. To build is the last thing we should do in the government sector. It’s expensive. We have to continually look at how we improve business, how we do business within ourselves, and we should always look at our process first, prior to trying to do anything. Good processes, good people, and then you take technology and you accelerate that. You don’t take technology and just slap it on a problem, because you’ll just make the problem go much faster and become worse. People are like, “Hey, I want to buy this.” I say, “What’s your problem first?’ And then, what’s your process? Let’s talk through the process first before we even think about applying technology. The technology just makes your process go faster. It makes it smoother. If you have a bad process, you’re going to do bad things faster. IT is IT wherever you go. But I will tell you that the one thing about government, government’s been around for a long time, so we have a lot of processes that have been around for a long time. It’s hard to change those processes. It’s hard to think outside the box on those processes because we’ve done them this way for so long. I think that’s part of the challenge of being inside government, is how can we challenge ourselves on our current processes to make them better. I think those are things [where] the technology department can help leaders by saying, “Hey, let’s look outside the box and let’s see what we can do to bring innovation into this.” Looking at the process, improving the process. A lot of these processes have been around before you and I were born, probably.

IICA: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Fyhrlund: Our budget this year is $142 million. We have 378 budget positions within the department. The total county budget is $9.5 billion.

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?

Fyhrlund: My best way for vendors to meet is, I like conferences. When I’m going through specific problems, RFIs, requests for information, and then the RFP [request for proposal] process are the best ways. I do get vendors that reach out to me or sometimes my other CIOs and other counties are like, “Hey, we’re using this.” Well, I’d love to talk to understand what you did and how you did that. And I’ll talk to a vendor that way. So those are some of the best ways. LinkedIn is of course where you’ll find me on social media. I do have people reach out to me there. A lot of it’s conferences and that is where I’ve really come across vendors, in that or through the RFP processes — and of course experience. I’ve been in IT for 29 years. I know a lot of vendors now.

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

Fyhrlund: I answered the question two ways here. In my first 100 days here, I think one of the things that I like is, I’m out there meeting, I met with all the IT leaders within the organization and the camaraderie is being built. I talked about “we” and how are we going to do this? The leadership team here at San Bernardino has been spectacular. I’ve had lots of great mentors and lots of great people around. I mean, that’s really what built my career. We moved the mainframe to the cloud [at Milwaukee County]. We implemented an ERP and it’s live and running; I’ve done that twice in my life and now I feel like I’m going to go through a third. All those are great moments in a career. And the whole COVID-lift team while I was at Milwaukee was smaller, but we lifted 2,000 people from not teleworking to teleworking in under a week. And that was smooth. We had already started building our environment that way.

IICA: What has surprised you most this year in government technology?

Fyhrlund: The rise of generative AI. Not that I was surprised that it was coming, but surprised how far it stormed the industry, which is great. I’ve actually gone online to provide guidance to the entire county on how to use it. I’m an advocate for using it, but understanding how to use it, what to use on there and stuff like this. And I want to make sure people don’t fear technology. I want them to use technology, but use it safely. And I think if you had asked me back in November [2022] ... I don’t think I would’ve picked that from last year to this year. I knew it was coming, but it seemed like the learning curve — ChatGPT blew up AI. I think we have to look at it as like, again, how can we use that to provide — like Bard — how can we use those services to provide higher-level services to our citizens?

IICA: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Fyhrlund: Well, GovTech,** mainly. I actually listen to TechTables podcasts. It’s a podcast for government CIOs. You hear a conversation and all of a sudden, you hear a nugget and you’re like, “OK, I need to look into that.” And a lot of it is also being [in a] network. It’s a lot of commitments to, like, the Society for Information Management or being a part of Inspire CIO or being a part of Metropolitan Information eXchange. Also how I keep abreast is talking to my peers and whatnot and being linked in with them. And then going and researching what people are doing and why they’re doing it. I think the best part about being a government CIO, though, is that us governments are not typically in competition. So we’ll share everything. Which is great.

IICA: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Fyhrlund: My hobbies right now have been golfing; I’ve been golfing a lot. I’m a do-it-yourselfer. When you buy a new house, you’ve got lots of do-it-yourself stuff going on. I go hiking too, I like that kind of stuff. I have a Jeep; I’m in the perfect area for off-roading, for Jeeps. I love the outdoors; I still have a cabin back in Wisconsin. I fly back to go do that kind of stuff. That’s kind of like my hobbies and stuff like that. You had asked me about reading. Usually, I read a lot of leadership books. Being in the military, I read Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Stanley McChrystal, that kind of stuff. Or, I read about Steve Jobs, other IT leaders, “Hey, how did they do this?” Currently I’m reading Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. I have a daughter that’s a wildland firefighter. It’s a book about these smoke jumpers in 1949. This book walks through the details of what happened with these experienced firefighters. And what decisions were made. I’m actually reading this saying, “Well, should I recommend this to her or not?” I’m taking leadership notes out of it, also. You can find golden nuggets and use it, even here. What can you do to help lead people and inspire people to do what they need to do? And how can you not panic?

*Techquity, a collective impact initiative of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County, per its website, is centered on digital equity and inclusion for residents in four Wisconsin counties.

**Government Technology magazine is a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Industry Insider — California.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.