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Industry Insider One-on-One: State Parks Tech Leader on Planning, Modernization

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.

Veteran state staffer Robert Blesi is chief technology officer at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, a role he has had since September 2015. He has been at the department since September 1999, joining as a senior information systems analyst, supervisor, a role he held for more than 11 years before becoming manager of areas including network services and systems administration in January 2011.

Blesi studied at MiraCosta College in Oceanside; his skill areas include networking, disaster recovery, active directory and system administration.

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

Blesi: I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. I’m now a recovering perfectionist, still working to implement best possible solutions and provide considerable improvement to what California State Parks has been used to. It is always important to do everything the right way, but you will suffer from analysis paralysis if you don’t commit to a solution. At the start of the pandemic, the California State Parks IT division quickly built a virtual desktop environment in the Microsoft Azure cloud for over 1,000 employees. New advancements and ease of use in cloud services has allowed employees to transition to full/hybrid telework during the COVID-19 pandemic and kept our department moving forward. When I first started as CTO, the focus of the department was to increase revenue generation. IT focused on automated payment systems, a new parks reservation system, and we implemented a new law enforcement computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system for our peace officers. In the recent years, we have focused on providing a better experience for our park visitors. Life safety improvements include a new lifeguard dispatch system (SEACOM) and Wi-Fi connectivity in park locations with limited cellular service for call out during medical emergencies. At the campsite, we are working to provide high-speed Wi-Fi so our visitors can stay in touch with friends and family, sharing photos and videos of their park adventures on social media. We are working on virtual tours of parks allowing visitors from all over the world to see our beautiful spaces remotely. State Parks is in a continual path of progress. We are working on a five-year strategic plan with a focus on improving the public experience and access to parks.

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?

Blesi: State Parks is currently working on a five-year strategic plan, called Path Forward. This document was created in collaboration with more than 100 State Parks employees, who represent all program areas, geographic regions and classifications, along with the executive staff; and an advisory committee comprised of key organizational partners who engage with State Parks regularly. Path Forward continues the momentum of the 2001 Seventh Generation Visioning document, the 2012 Parks Forward Commission, and the two-year Transformation effort completed in 2017. If interested, I can provide you with a copy of the plan once it becomes available.

Editor’s note: A draft of Path Forward may be found here.

Industry Insider — California: How often do you update your organization’s enterprise catalog?

Blesi: At the moment, State Parks does not have an electronic data catalog (EDC). The department has hired an enterprise architect who is working on building a data warehouse. The EDC will help my colleagues search for data assets across all divisions of California State Parks and find relevant data at the snap of a finger. Data governance and data classification will ensure access to sensitive and confidential information is secure.

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?

Blesi: There are several projects that State Parks is excited to launch in the near future:

  • Reservation System: State Parks has less than two years until it awards a new contract for its reservation system — ReserveCalifornia. Supporting state park field operations and enhancing the experience of visitors with a modern platform was key for transitioning to a new reservation system. The goal will remain the same with the new contract with the hope of utilizing newer technology.
  • Rural Broadband: We are excited for the rural broadband project that will bring Internet access to areas of the state park system with no connectivity. To date, State Parks has expanded Wi-Fi services at parks with existing Wi-Fi infrastructure. Based on the location of a park, connectivity will be limited at the parks providing the service. Some parks will have higher connection that may allow for more functionalities such as uploading or streaming videos depending on the number of users connected at the same time.
  • ServiceNow: IT is planning to implement ServiceNow for IT service management, asset management, change management and project management.
  • Unit Data File: The Unit Data File is another system IT is looking at modernizing.
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?

Blesi: State Parks continues to transform and improve access to mobile devices, allowing virtual tours of parks in multiple languages, mobile reservation and payment systems. We will never finish improving. For example, within the last 10 years, State Parks has developed several new resources for its employees and visitors such as a new CAD system for its Law Enforcement Division, a new reservation system, Wi-Fi access at parks, etc. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the department transitioned more than 1,000 employees to telework mode, virtually engaged students via the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS), and expanded a supervisor control and data acquisition (SCADA) network for monitoring water treatment systems and park security.

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

Blesi: State Parks’ IT budget is close to $20 million with 71 permanent IT staff supporting a department with approximately 4,500 employees (permanent and temporary positions). The department’s overall budget for Fiscal Year 2022-2023 is $1,015,469,000.

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?

Blesi: The best way to contact me is via my parks email:

Industry Insider — California: Your work during COVID-19 manning the department operations center and leading the DPR Technical Team was recently recognized at the California Public Sector CIO Academy. In your tenure as CTO, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Blesi: When State Parks started to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to affect staff and operations in early 2020, we knew staff would not be able to work and we would need a hybrid solution of telework and in office. IT staff leveraged Microsoft Azure virtual desktops. It was a huge push into modernizing the department’s IT shop. The majority of servers were moved into Azure, resulting in the creation of more than 2,000 virtual desktops. I can’t say any one project is the one I am most proud of. I’m proud of my colleagues. The employees who work tirelessly to ensure each project is successful. I think I might have hired an entire group of IT perfectionists dedicated to California State Parks and improving IT on the small budget we have.

Industry Insider — California: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Blesi: I have a great respect for California’s procurement system. I realize at times it can be frustrating to have vendors not approved or not in current contract vehicles, but it is a necessary step to protect taxpayer dollars. Over the years, it has become easier for small businesses to get involved and I hope that continues.

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

Blesi: There are quite a few that I read and follow — TechCrunch, GovTech,* Engadget, Google and Yahoo. I follow some interesting people on Twitter as well. I have to stay current on hardware, both enterprise and PC, to keep up on the newest, fastest PCs because I am a nerd. So, Tom’s Hardware GPU charts and the like. And of course, I follow e.Republic!*

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

Blesi: My first love is the ocean. I am a marine science major and have always been fascinated with the ocean. My hobbies have always had some aspect of water to it — scuba diving, free diving, boating, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. When it’s cold and the water is frozen? Snowboarding! When it comes to reading, I’ve been a huge fan of science fiction/fantasy from the first time I read The Hobbit in grade school. I enjoy reading popular books before they become movies and I encourage my children to do the same. I am close to retirement age with about five years to go, so I’m interested in travel vloggers with an ocean focus.

*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.