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Industry Insider One-on-One: SoCal CIO on Customer Experience, Move to Digital

This story is limited to Industry Insider — California members.
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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.

Joseph Cevetello is chief information officer at the city of Santa Monica, a role he has had since October 2016. He was previously principal consultant at Connexion Strategy from October 2015-October 2016; before that, he was assistant CIO at the University of Southern California from July 2014-September 2015, during more than six years at the university.

Cevetello has a bachelor’s in music from California State University, Northridge; and a master’s in education and a doctorate in education with a focus on technology use in adult learning, both from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He also has a certificate of advanced study in technology, curriculum and learning environments from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and has a certificate in the teaching of English as a foreign language to adults (TEFLA) from the University of Cambridge where he was a TEFL/English as a Second Language instructor in 1992. Cevetello’s professional licenses/certifications include Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Foundations certification.

Industry Insider — California: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role? How have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Cevetello: I’ve been with the city of Santa Monica for about five and a half years and it was my first government role. Previous to that, I have a long history in higher education, both as a consultant to higher education institutions as well as working within higher education institutions, in IT but also as a faculty member at a number of institutions. I was only the second CIO that Santa Monica ever had. It’s interesting: The first guy basically created the role and had a very particular focus; and his focus was primarily on creating fiber. I had known the city of Santa Monica for over three decades. ... And it’s always been known as kind of one of the cities that’s been at the forefront of sustainability efforts. So when I walked into an organization that was frozen in 1992, I was shocked because just about everything that was done internally in the organization was done on paper. There were very few digital efforts, hardly any digital workflows. I think when I walked in, I walked in as clearly an outsider to government, but somebody who was brought in so I could enable innovation and also enable public-private partnerships to modernize and bring the city apparatus, so to speak, the mechanisms of government, how things were done, into the 21st century. Primarily at first, I was the listener, learning the business. I’m a trained researcher, so I approached it like a research project. I ... tried to understand what the points were of everything that was going on in the city, where the pain points were. And then I formulated a strategy along with the rest of the organization to deal with the gap that we identified. I see myself as a partner, an enabler, somebody whose goal is to provide service to the organization and also a definite focus on customer service. We’ve been able to bring about quite a bit of transformation because it was a collaborative effort. I said to the organization, ‘Where do you want to go?’ And we’ll be the vehicle to help you get there.

Industry Insider — California: 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?

Cevetello: Yes, we have a strategic plan. One of the first things that I did after my listening tour is, I pulled together a group of 75 individuals from throughout all aspects of the city government, from our 14 departments, all of my staff and some citizens to engage in a collaborative robust strategic planning process. We had 75 people over about six months engaged in six different workshops focused on identifying the gap, defining the vision of where we wanted to go, prioritizing what was most important and then creating a strategic plan that reflected that, along with goals and metrics. And this plan has been in place for about three, three and a half years. One of the most important things about it was, I said ‘Look, when we create this plan, it’s not going to be a static piece of paper that’s going to sit on a shelf somewhere. I want it to be a living plan that we’re constantly looking at, so every six months we go back, we refresh it, we report on our metrics, we ensure that the metrics that we created are the right metrics because you can create all kinds of metrics that don’t mean anything.’ And so it is a living document that we refer back to and we’re about to, probably early next year, we’re going to go back in and re-engage the process and refresh it.

Editor’s note: Find the city of Santa Monica’s Strategic Technology Plan here

Industry Insider — California: 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?

Cevetello: We have a number of really transformational projects for the enterprise. One is we’re completing replacing our computer dispatch (CAD) system, which our police, fire and emergency management rely on. That project is well underway, and we’re excited about that because we’re kind of going from, again, 1990 into the 21st century. That’s going to be a very transformational project and is really going to help our first responders, and our ability to track data and to provide better service to our citizens. Another one that’s going on right now that I think is going to have a very significant impact is, we’re looking at modernizing our permitting processes. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and friction involved in our permitting process. There is an interdepartmental effort right now to identify new systems to help support and improve the customer experience of permitting. And then we’re continuing with all of our other initiatives – we have a cloud-first strategy. When I arrived, everything was on premises. We’re now majority-cloud, and I want to be about 80 percent cloud. It was slowed by the pandemic, because of that, in some ways; we’re getting back to that. Another initiative that came out of our strategic plan that continues to be very significant for us is the idea of enabling our staff to work from anywhere, any time, securely. It just so happens we were about 80 percent of the way done with that when COVID-19 hit and it enabled us to really pivot from being almost exclusively an on-premises, face-to-face organization to being almost exclusively remote. Another one is our work with the homelessness app; it’s called Connect. It’s actually a very interesting, first-of-its-kind mobile app that combines data from police, fire and our human services to be able to deliver better outcomes in real time to our homeless population. That’s one that we continue with.

Editor’s note: The city learned in April that it would be recognized with a CIO 100 Award for Project Connect, a data platform, which enables staff on the front line to expedite services for the homeless and share information more seamlessly.

Industry Insider — California: In your opinion, what should local government be doing more of in technology?

Cevetello: The way I like to think about this is, and I guess I could have defined my role like this before: I look for friction in the customer experience and in relationships. In relationships between departments within the city or between us and our customers. So, I’m always looking for friction and I’m always looking to reduce friction. And by friction, I mean problems, red tape, issues. The city manager who hired me a number of years ago, we used to talk quite a bit about the fact that he wanted to be the Amazon of government. And what he meant by that was, you go to Amazon, they make things easy for you, you don’t have to think twice, everything is there for you, a simple interface ... . Amazon has changed the world of customer experience and IT. What I think the real opportunity is, how can we make local governments more frictionless. There’s a whole host of reasons why we can’t be an Amazon, including data and data privacy. However, there’s no reason why we can’t provide a better, more streamlined, agile, digital customer experience.

Industry Insider — California: How do you define “digital transformation?" How far along is your organization in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Cevetello: I think the thing about digital transformation that I find interesting is basically technology has always been about digital transformation. It’s been about digital transformation since the 1940s when the first computers were really starting to be employed in businesses. But it’s kind of a term of ours now, about how to make your face-to-face interactions more virtual. That’s how I define it. To me right now, digital transformation is, how do I take what’s normally done in a face-to-face interaction where I need to be physically in the same space with you and transform it into a situation where either I can interact wholly virtually or in a hybrid way virtually? So, we minimize the time you have to spend face to face and maximize the efficiency of the interaction. That’s how I would define digital transformation. How far along are we? Not far enough. There’s no doubt that we are much farther along post-our strategic plan, which was created in 2018. Can I codify it? Can I say we’re 40 percent of the way there, 50 percent of the way there? Not really. But I’ll know when we’re there, when somebody comes to me from the community and says ‘Wow, Joseph, you know that interaction that I just had getting my permit? It was great, it was fast, it was efficient. I didn’t have to check up on anything, you guys communicated.’ And I’m not saying that those things don’t happen now. With homelessness it is happening in that way now. And the other answer to that question is once you get into this world and you start thinking about how to enable virtual customer experiences, it never stops. You’re just going to keep on iterating and improving and thinking about how you can integrate other technologies into those interactions. Maybe one way I can codify where we are is, one of the first things that we did after the strategic plan in transforming the environment was Laserfiche and my group worked together and integrated digital signatures. Everything was on paper. If you reserved a tennis court, you had to sign a piece of paper. Working with Laserfiche and incorporating DocuSign, we were able to implement digital signatures for the city. We estimate we save something like 250,000 staff hours on not having somebody walk contracts around, which leads to, I think we estimated a few million dollars in savings. So, that was a huge one and that ... kind of broke the dam on this.

Industry Insider — California: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Cevetello: Pre-COVID, we were above a billion (for the city). Technology budget for the city is an interesting one; I have my own budget to maintain things, but then the departments in part fund their own technology solutions, which we then support. I would estimate that technology spend in the city is probably around $49 million total for all kinds of technology. And that includes operational as well as capital funding, because the large projects are funded from capital funds. As far as my staff, we’re currently 48; (we have) plans to increase to about 50 hopefully soon. The city of Santa Monica in COVID-19 went through a serious restructuring. We had to reduce our workforce by 30 percent, so pre-COVID I had a larger workforce than I do now. I’m slowly starting to build it back up, but the entire city cut 30 percent of its workforce.

Editor’s note: the city of Santa Monica’s approved budget for its 2022-2023 Fiscal Year is $665.4 million.

Industry Insider — California: 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?

Cevetello: I think probably the best ways are to engage in events, symposiums, gatherings, meetings that have value to me as a CIO or to my staff as IT personnel. Maybe a conversation around zero trust or something like that, that’s sponsored by an organization where then you can talk to them. Something that has a conversation where you can glean some kind of value from it. Cold-calling and sending emails out and saying, ‘I can help you save 40 percent on – ” ... if anything, it’s all noise for me anymore and I can’t look at it. I think going to interesting events – the CIO 100 Symposium is a great event, it always has been.

Industry Insider — California: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Cevetello: Probably the actual project I’m the most proud of right now is that Project Connect, which is the homelessness app. It was one of the first challenges I had from my then-boss, the city manager, and basically it was laid out to me like this: He said, 'Look, one of the biggest challenges I have on a daily basis is homelessness.' He said we probably spend more in resources than any other city in California and yet I’m not sure we have the best outcomes we can. And the challenge around this is, I don’t have a comprehensive awareness of everything that we do and the impacts that it has on any particular individual on any particular day. I took this as a great challenge. Basically, the idea that we came up with was, in partnership with this wonderful startup called Akido Labs ... was could we take the data that’s an existing data source – police, criminal justice data, fire department HIPAA data, human services within L.A. County Homeless Management Information System – and combine this data on a real-time basis and deliver it to our frontline responders ... ? Protecting people’s privacy, adhering to all of the sanctions and laws around this data but being able to free it up so that people could make better decisions? In the pilot phase of this, we estimate that it reduced arrests of homeless individuals by 37 percent. Just because the people who were in this pilot population, who we knew because there was communication amongst these groups, because there was greater awareness of what was going on, they were able to decrease arrests. The other thing that we came up with was, there were 33 percent fewer dispatches from the fire department. Because usually the fire department are the first ones to be dispatched around these types of issues. And the great thing about the app that I’m the most proud about is, I said, I want to create this thing but I don’t want to make anybody do anything more than what they’re already doing. ... I wanted them to continue to do that work but be able to pull it all together in an app and serve it up to them so that they weren’t doing anything extra but they were getting more information about what was going on. And that’s what we were able to achieve.

Industry Insider — California: What has surprised you most this year in government technology?

Cevetello: I guess what probably has most surprised me is there is still so much friction. Maybe it’s not so much this year, but maybe it’s over COVID-19 in general, you know what’s the thing that’s surprised me? It’s ... despite the fact that we have a very inconsistent communications structure in this country, it all held together. The fact that for periods in the deep dark days of COVID-19, that hundreds of thousands of video conferences were going on and that our telecom infrastructure held up and didn’t break, that was a huge surprise to me. But that’s not a government thing necessarily ... it’s government-private sector. I was pleasantly surprised that there weren’t more communication issues at that time.

Industry Insider — California: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the govtech/SLED sector?

Cevetello: I’m an avid Financial Times reader. I love The Financial Times; I read it every day. I get it on paper, too. I read The New York Times. I dabble in Wire, I dabble in the Government Technology*, CIO magazine, those types of things. But I have to tell you I’m amazed at how much really good coverage around technology and technology use, across industries, across the world The Financial Times provides.

Industry Insider — California: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Cevetello: I’m an academic at heart, so I tend to read a lot of nonfiction. Right now, I’m in the middle of a fantastic book which has all kinds of implications for government and everything else related to technology, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff; it’s a fantastic book. I tend to read things like that. I read novels to get my mind off things, but I tend to like a lot of nonfiction work, especially around technology and society; it’s what my PhD is in so that’s what I like to read. I wish I had more time to read; I don’t but I always try to make sure I get a little bit in every day.

*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.