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New State CTO Talks Policy, Innovation, Vendor Relations

An image of Jonathan Porat, state CTO, next to a quote that reads: "I think you'll see that we're going to be engaging in some proofs of concept in trying to work together with [state] departments to bring them more directly to vendors that we think embody the values that are in the [digital] strategy."
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.

Jonathan Porat came to California from Seattle in December, when he joined the California Department of Technology as the state’s chief technology innovation officer. Six months later, he was elevated to the role of state chief technology officer. He has a deep background in government technology, having worked at the federal level as well as in an IT leadership role for the city of Seattle. Porat received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Florida and his master’s degree in public policy from The George Washington University. In a recent interview with Industry Insider — California, Porat talked about new technology, IT governance, vendor relations and what he’s enjoying most about Sacramento, his new home.

Industry Insider — California: Congratulations on your promotion to state chief technology officer. What motivated you to take this position?

Jonathan Porat: I’m really motivated by doing what I can to have the most impact on the largest number of people. And there are a lot of great organizations, a lot of great work being done in the private sector and nonprofit sector. But really, the way that you can make the biggest difference in the lives of Californians is by working at the state and being able to drive policy, technology and user experiences directly for our residents.

A little bit about my background: I came to the state of California from the city of Seattle, as the city’s first-ever information technology engagement manager, which meant that I worked with all the different city departments to figure out how can we use technology to better achieve policy goals. … That also meant, internally, we were thinking a lot about what does cloud computing look like at the city and for city services? How can we manage our data more effectively? And how do we decide what our future is in terms of infrastructure? Do we want to have multiple data centers, do we want to move completely to the cloud?

Before that, I worked at the federal government, with the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, where as a regulatory economist, I worked on labor and technology regulations. So things like overtime, minimum wage, net neutrality, wireline and Lifeline, which are broadband assistance programs from the Federal Communications Commission, as well as I did some research and alternative financing. So crowdfunding, accelerator models, incubators — really focusing on what are some different ways that startups can break through barriers to entry in different industries.

And then lastly, I came from the Executive Office of the President and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. I (worked) primarily on the federal government’s technology policy goals, figuring out ... how to use more opportunities for open data, or how can we use technology to improve diversity in hiring, things like that, for the White House itself.

What I really hope to have brought to the state is kind of that higher-level strategic vision from my time at all these different levels of government, as well as that commitment, especially from my time at the city of Seattle, and a lot of the great leadership that was there, to really focus on the residents that we’re serving and really making sure that our technology and our services are inclusive and equitable.

IICA: In your current role, do you think you will have as much of that direct resident-facing impact? Or are you more at a higher policy level?

Porat: That’s what I find exciting about some of the changes that we’ve made to the CTO role. As you’re aware, before being appointed CTO, I was the state’s chief technology innovation officer, and I directed the Office of Digital Services, which is largely resident-facing technology — design and web services, data and geographic information services, as well as some back-end engineering services, which we call Technology Innovation Services. That’s our application development team, software development team. So now, I’m very grateful that while I’m joining the Office of Technology as their director, I’m bringing that Office of Digital Services along with me, as well as our enterprise architecture team and our critical services team. That’s the team that manages the Technology Modernization Fund and Technology Stabilization Fund. So it’s allowed us to really look at a lot of issues much more holistically and be able to work kind of across our teams much more efficiently. For some of the work that I’m doing on the infrastructure side, we’re using some of the methodologies and approaches that we use on the Digital Strategy or Digital Services side. We’re doing journey maps, we’re doing a lot of user research, we’re involving our clients and state partners a lot more in what we do.

And then on the Digital Services side, we’re looking really closely at how we can integrate our own technology into our products: How can we improve web hosting technology? How can we improve the way that we host data at the state? … It’s been really exciting to start to be able to use some of those different levers in tandem. We always worked really well within CDT, and we always had a great relationship between offices. But now we can be a little bit more intentional about bringing all these different aspects together to solve policy problems for the state.

I wouldn’t say it’s a significant reorganization, but it’s more that we want to really be able to focus on what are those services that we’re providing residents and other departments at the state. And this gives us a chance to really solidify all of those groups that work on those things together. We’re not getting rid of any offices, we’re not making any significant changes where we’re dropping services or anything like that. If anything, we’re going to be able to look at a lot of our services in a different way, and this is some of the work that I’m doing now: What is really going to be the most value added for our residents and for our clients at the state?

IICA: The reorganization of these functions — is that something vendors would notice? Will it change the way they engage with CDT?

Porat: We’ve tried to be proactive as we’ve met with the vendor community, because we want them to be informed so that they can work with us in the best way possible. I think the good news is that if you go on our website, we’ve updated our org chart, so you can see all of that reflected there.

I think you’ll see that we’re going to be engaging in some proofs of concept in trying to work together with [state] departments to bring them more directly to vendors that we think embody the values that are in the [digital] strategy.

IICA: When we talk about the state’s Digital Strategy and what’s laid out on the website — the org charts and the data and what have you — what would you say the primary objectives are of that strategy? You’ve touched on the resident-facing and producing better services.

Porat: At its crux, everything we do is built around that value added for our residents and clients. But this particular document I really view as having two goals, and one thing to remember is this is a statewide digital strategy. It’s not CDT’s digital strategy. When we talk about the state and when we talk about technology, the really exciting thing about that is we’re talking about technology throughout the entire state. That means the state government, the local and municipal governments, the regional government bodies, educational institutions. So we need to come up with something that’s going to be applicable to all of those different groups.

The first goal of this document was to make it a framework, meaning, what are those core values? What are the tactics? What are strategies that can get us towards improving our digital services? We have some examples in the strategy around building partnerships. Don’t just build technology by yourself; you want to loop in service providers, [and] you want to put residents first when you’re developing technology. So build it with their needs and what they’re trying to get out of it in mind. If you’re using technology, don’t just replicate an analog service or replicate something that’s on paper — really take the time to figure out now that we have this technology available, how can we use it to really simplify or expand a service that we’re offering?

The second thing that this document is, is it’s really a signal, especially to our state partners, that these are kind of the things that we’re going to be focusing on when it comes to policy and standards. We’re going to be taking a look at our web standards, we’re going to be taking a look at the way that we share and visualize data, we’re going to be taking a look at the way that the state manages and develops its code. And we’re going to build it around those principles.

I’m very excited to use this as a way to give a heads-up to state and local governments and the vendor community that these are the things that we’re going to be really caring about, and this is what’s on our work plan at CDT moving forward as we try to implement that strategy. And the goal of the strategy, as well, is to actually make it actionable. That’s something that I appreciate, that [CDT] Director [Liana] Bailey-Crimmins has really emphasized with us. We view this as a living document; we have some things that we’re planning to add in conjunction with the strategy. So while the strategy is a strategic document, there’s goals, there’s principles, there’s still some action items in the strategy that dictate here are the things that we plan to do, as well as here’s expectations of our partners.

IICA: CDT and several other departments have been doing vendor forums on a regular basis. Are there any other things that you have in mind as far as engaging with vendors or encouraging or directing how they engage with you? Any kind of a call to action or anything that you would like to say to them?

Porat: The Digital Strategy is a really good starting point for looking at how is it that our Office of Technology Services (OTech) is going to be evaluating technology moving forward. It gives them kind of a heads-up on some of the things we’ll be looking for. One thing that’s really important to me is not just engaging residents, not just engaging our state partners, but engaging the vendor community as part of our work. You might be familiar with our digital identification initiative. As part of that work, we’ve done a full market sounding report as part of the work that we’re doing at OTech. We’re meeting regularly with the vendor community to learn what’s new in technology, infrastructure and storage and network so that we can be forward-facing and start to plan against what everyone’s offering as well as what those trends are. And I always take that as an opportunity to also learn more about how our vendors are working with our partners, so we can make sure we’re providing support for their time. We need to all be moving in tandem. Our vendors are really valuable partners in terms of achieving a lot of those goals.

For me, it’s really critical to always work with the business community outside of our own space. It’s necessary for me, or for us, to learn about what’s going on out there. But they’re a part of that broader ecosystem as well. One thing that is really important is not just engaging with our regular vendors, but really trying to make sure that we’re being open. And that’s why we have a webpage, we have a forum to make it really easy, especially for newer vendors, who maybe don’t have the pre-existing relationships, to be able to join us. And especially as we look at the Digital Strategy, and we look at trying some new technologies to really make things much easier for residents to access services, I’m excited that we might be able to forge some new partnerships there. And there might be some vendors working on things that we haven’t seen yet, especially when it comes to doing that outreach, and providing front-line services to different residents. What are the ideas that different people are thinking of? And especially now, with some of the huge advances in technology that we’ve seen over a couple of years, there may be a startup or a new company out there that has an idea that could be really beneficial to the state. It’s exciting being on the cutting edge.

IICA: When you talk about implementing the Digital Strategy and trying to foster adoption of it in the public and private sectors, what are the biggest challenges in doing that?

Porat: The biggest challenge is really that the state of California is very federated when it comes to technology. This is why we’re building the strategy as this framework and this signal, but we have to find a way to coordinate across the 150-plus agencies that are out there. I’ve been doing a lot of work with our state Technology Council, which is the collection of AIOs and CIOs at the state. We’re actually creating a new Technology Innovation Advisory Council for that group, as part of our support of the Digital Strategy, so that we can really focus on design data, emerging technologies, to really tee up discussions. Building those partnerships and those relationships is really critical to me.

I’m really proud that we’ve been able to work with our Department of Rehabilitation to make accessibility changes and inclusion changes, and pretty much on a daily basis improve the system so that we can make sure everybody sees it. But even with all of the testing and all the outreach we did before, you’re just never going to know what the technology looks like until you throw it into the complexity of all of these different departments with different tech stacks and different key resonances that they’re working with.

IICA: Being that the Digital Strategy is so new, how long will it be until you’d have to update it?

Porat: That Digital Strategy needs to tie in centrally to the state’s strategic vision for technology. Right now, that’s Vision 2023. So as those broader strategies get updated, we’re going to need to take another look at our Digital Strategy and see how that informs the direction that we want to go. For the strategy to work well, it needs to coincide with the other work that’s going on. An example of that is I worked very closely with our broadband and equity teams at CDT. I’m actually a co-chair of the state digital equity plan’s accessibility and civic engagement working group. That team has done an amazing job of reaching out to all different types of communities and regions across the state to basically just gather information on what the barriers are right now to us having digital equity across the state. A lot of the feedback that we’re getting is on government forms and government websites: Our clients and our residents are looking for a more streamlined experience; they’re looking for something that’s more in line with their expectations for what they would see in a website or forum or some sort of digitized service in 2023.

I’ve been really pleasantly surprised with how well the reception has been across the state, and the really great thing about working at the state is everyone’s committed to innovation, but also innovation that’s really driven by our residents.

Another part of the strategy is that we really want to sustain an innovation culture, because government is very complex, because it can take a long time to budget. You have to think ahead, and it’s difficult to secure funding, as opposed to, you know, if you worked in the private sector and you had a huge R&D division. We have an IT Leadership Academy where we bring in IT professionals from across the state, and I’m really privileged to have a chance to work with the students of the academy. And I think the No. 1 question I get on innovation is just how do you make it stick? Like if I come up with a great idea, how do I make it happen? So we’re really trying to lay that groundwork through the Technology Innovation Advisory Council, through the Digital Strategy, to give people the space to be able to innovate and come up with new ideas and know that we’re there not to just be the hammer and make sure that you follow all of the state’s rules. We also want to remove those barriers of entry that would stop you from innovating. So if we can give you tools to develop new websites, or to develop applications or enhance things in ways that maybe you couldn’t before, that’s something that is really exciting to us.

That’s why we’re excited to see so many different departments and agencies reach out, saying, “We’d love to partner on digital ID, on accessibility, on building better data, on trying to modernize our storage and networking infrastructure.”

IICA: Obviously, everybody now is talking about AI and machine learning. How do you handle the ethics of that? How do you handle the nuances of that with different communities and trying to keep equity in mind and watching outcomes?

Porat: As you know, the technology has this transformational ability to really change the way that we operate, both as a business and in terms of what we can do policy-wise. The big thing that jumps to my mind is digital identification. We’ve been spending time piloting and really understanding the technology — the possibility of us building what we call an identity gateway, basically a way for us to electronically verify that you are who you say you are when you’re looking for state services or information. So instead of needing to verify your identity across a bunch of different websites, we can do that centrally. Instead of having to give your Social Security number or your driver’s license information across a bunch of different websites, they can come to us and we can verify your identity, so you don’t need to. That would improve the security of our sites and also just make it an easier experience for you. As we’re implementing that, we’re very aware of the fact that there are privacy risks, security risks with that technology. And that’s where the framework that we use — the Digital Strategy — is really important, thinking about what are those benefits that are going to matter the most to our residents. We want to make sure that we’re tailoring the experience so that if we are making decisions around how to make sure it’s secure, how to make sure it’s easy to use, that it’s meeting those direct needs of our residents. We’re building partnerships, not just within the state, but with the business community, vendor community, with privacy advocates, so we can make sure that all of those perspectives are there as we roll out what we’re doing.

And we’re doing a bunch of different pilots so that we can really understand how this technology works for different types of people at the state. There are people who conventionally will be able to verify their identity through a driver’s license, or through kind of the normal way that you might in a physical interaction — you know, if you’re purchasing alcohol at a restaurant or something like that. But there’s also a lot of residents in California who maybe don’t have as many business interactions. So we want to make sure that as we’re building this technology, we’re putting everyone first, we’re making the partnerships we need to learn. And then we’re allowing that room to really innovate and come up with ways that we can provide these services in a way that we may not have before.

I’m really excited for us to be able to share this strategy a little more explicitly. We’ve been using this framework for a while; we can start to share it with our partners and kind of work off of the same page, especially as we have exciting new technologies like digital ID.

IICA: Is there anything personally that our readers would want to know about you?

Porat: I live in Sacramento. I moved prior to being appointed CTO, which was very exciting. I loved visiting California. I think that the best thing about Sacramento has been for my dog — he just loves not being stuck in Seattle’s rainy, cloudy weather. The one thing that I did not know about Sacramento before I moved here — and I should have, because it’s the city of trees — is just how many trees and flowers and gardens are all over the city. My favorite thing is just kind of walking around and exploring new neighborhoods and seeing everything that’s out there. So I’ve been really happy about the move. It’s been a fun transition from Seattle to Sacramento.

I’m really lucky that as part of this role, I’ve gotten to travel to different parts of the state and meet some different communities — meet people who are doing research, meet businesses and vendors. And it’s been great to really see the way that California does things. There’s a very unique entrepreneurial spirit and a very unique connection to people and neighbors that you don’t necessarily find everywhere. It’s been really inspiring for me to be able to kind of take that on.

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