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Kern County CITO: ‘I Have a Fantastic Team in Place’

An image of Mark Buonauro, chief information technology officer for Kern County, next to a quote that reads: "Putting a greater emphasis on our customers and their needs, earning their trust, is of paramount importance to me. Doing what we say we are going to do is one of the best ways to accomplish this."
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.

Mark Buonauro is chief information technology officer for Kern County, a role he has had since August 2022. Buonauro, who leads Kern’s Information Technology Services department (ITS), was previously vice president and division chief information officer at Dignity Health Management Services Organization for nearly three years; and before that was at Nestle for 18 years, most recently as its information security officer from 2012-2018.

He has a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and management and economics from California State University, Chico, and a master’s degree in management information systems and services from the University of Phoenix.

Industry Insider — California: As CITO 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?

Buonauro: While the role of CITO continuously is evolving, my primary focus is to modernize and align technology, services and support to the current and future needs of county departments. I have held this position for a little over a year. Putting a greater focus on security, accountability and communications has remained the top three priorities during this time. This is a very new approach for the ITS department here within the county. I come from a fairly heavy cybersecurity background and it was an area — honestly, even in health care and a lot of other local governments, security has just not traditionally been a huge emphasis unless it’s regulatory, unless it’s mandated. It’s an absolute top priority for the county and specifically for my department. I take my role as being ultimately accountable for all of our data across 40 different functional departments. And I believe in putting both human and financial resources behind it. I’ve seen [the role] both ways, where the CIO is responsible for both [aspects]. Here at the county, I think they actually considered having a CIO [chief information officer] and a CTO [chief technology officer]. And I think, for the purposes of just trying to be a little less top heavy and more efficient, they combined it, and asked for that position to be done by one person. It’s probably a little more challenging. It’s rare that you have one individual that has both a hardware, infrastructure, communications background, that also has a software development life cycle background as well. But if you can find that person, then it works.

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?

Buonauro: Yes: Kern County 2021-2026 Strategic Plan. I intend to contribute to the next plan produced by Kern County.

IICA: What big IT 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?

Buonauro: All projects listed are currently in flight:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementation.
  • Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) systems migration.
  • Phone system upgrade.
  • Multiple departmental software and hardware upgrades.

Contracts have been awarded in most cases. The ERP is the big-ticket item, and some of our departments have already signed contracts to move their CJIS data. There are different vendors; there’s separate, distinct functional departments, and they will all ultimately sign their own contracts, obviously with IT guidance and assistance. But most of those are either done or close to being signed off on. It’s a significant amount. I really haven’t seen one organization go through such a significant amount of transformation at the same time. And it’s certainly taxing my department significantly.

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

Buonauro: There should be a much greater focus on information security from both a technology and an awareness perspective.

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?

Buonauro: In its simplest form, this means change to me. Being able to challenge a manual process that has been in place 20-plus years and replace it with one that is efficient, data-driven, automated or even partially automated is at the core of our digital transformation. I don’t believe any organization will ever be finished with digital, or any, transformation efforts. Successful organizations should strive for continuous improvement. I’ve talked with people who have been here for 15, 20, 25 years and there have been processes and systems that have been in place those 20, 25 years and even beyond that. And it makes it exceptionally challenging to encourage and manage change in that type of an environment. Not impossible, but it’s certainly one of the more challenging environments that I’ve been a part of, in terms of facilitating that change and, really, managing stakeholders, user expectations, and you doing that change management full life cycle. I have to admit, it is a phenomenal learning experience and exciting at the same time.

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

Buonauro: Putting a greater emphasis on our customers and their needs, earning their trust, is of paramount importance to me. Doing what we say we are going to do is one of the best ways to accomplish this. I have been very pleased with the work and responsiveness my department has demonstrated during my tenure. I think I have a fantastic team in place right now. There is a desire to meet the needs of our customers, to do the right thing. We’ve had to look at some of our own processes, some of our own org structure and the way that we conduct our own business. First things first is to get your own house in order. And that’s been really my priority, is to make sure that we’re an efficient, well-run organization, and that we have the customer’s needs at the top of our mind. And that we hold ourselves accountable and that we do what we say we’re going to do. And I think that’s been a priority of mine, that’s been a priority of all of my deputies and all of my managers. Honestly, the feedback that I’ve received, probably in the first three to four months that I was in the position, is drastically different than the feedback I’ve been getting over the last three to four months. It’s good to talk to other leaders and to hear that they have been having better interactions with members of my department. I’m very encouraged by that. We just got rid of our very old ticketing system and we implemented a new ServiceDesk application, cloud-based. We put in a web portal so that all users will have a much easier experience reaching out to my department and getting help and getting it quickly, having the ability to see the status of the work that they’ve requested. Being more transparent with regard to how long it’s taking us to either respond or resolve their issues. Part of the feedback that I’m getting is that we may not have resolved all the issues that we have internally, but we are being more transparent about the problems we’re experiencing and the fact that we’re addressing them. And people for the most part here at Kern County are fairly patient and reasonable: “We’ll wait our turn as long as you’re not forgetting about us.” Having some tools to provide a little more visibility has been helpful, the techs love it. They can share information, they can collaborate a lot easier across different teams. So, that’s been a big win for us here internally.

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

Buonauro: As this has been my first year in the public sector, I have been surprised, borderline shocked, by the pace of change. I would say there are probably more administrative steps required before changes — not all changes, but some changes — can be enacted. Having processes and procedures, I think, is very important. In my time at Nestle, it’s a global company that used one instance of SAP. So, obviously, there had to be processes and procedures in place before changes could be made. Makes perfect sense. But I think there have been times where some of the administrative steps can either be redundant or exceedingly time-consuming. Which I think prevents us sometimes from taking advantage of certain opportunities. So, for me, it’s just probably, I think, the pace of change is just something that I’ve had to adjust to because it is just a different culture and it’s a different environment.

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

Buonauro: I have found if you follow the right amount and breadth of pages on LinkedIn (Information Security Officer, Computer Information Systems, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Certified Information Systems Auditor, Wall Street Journal tech, etc.), you can get a good cross-section of material to drill down on.

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

Buonauro: I love playing poker and watching football. Most of my reading choices bounce between science fiction (cliché for an IT person) and U.S. history, World War II in particular.

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