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San Francisco Interim CIO: ‘Make the Technology Meaningful’

An image of Michael Makstman, interim CIO of the city and county of San Francisco, next to a quote that reads: "I'm not sure I would say technology needs to be in the forefront of the agency's mission ... Instead, it should serve the local government's mission extensively and meaningfully."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state and local agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with IT leaders. Responses have been lightly edited.

Michael Makstman is the interim CIO and head of the Department of Technology for the city and county of San Francisco. He brings decades of experience in the private, academic and health-care sectors to the role. Makstman also serves as the chief information security officer, a role he took in January 2018. In December 2023, he was tapped to lead the Department of Technology on an interim basis.

Industry Insider — California: How did your background prepare you for your current role as interim San Francisco CIO?

Makstman: Preceded by roles in various sectors including nonprofit, and significant experience in large companies like Kaiser Permanente, I was tapped initially as the chief information security officer (CISO) for San Francisco. I worked for the city for six years in this role. My extensive background in technology, particularly in managing complex, highly regulated environments, aligned perfectly with the demands of overseeing the city’s technology environment as CISO. Now, having spent considerable time navigating the intricate regulations and sensitive data inherent in such environments, I bring a wealth of experience to the CIO role. My overall tenure in the city has afforded me deep relationships and a comprehensive understanding of our customers’ needs, positioning me well to advance the department’s service agenda and mission.

IICA: What big IT initiatives or projects are coming up and what sorts of developing opportunities should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Makstman: Our focus for the next 12 months revolves around three key areas. Firstly, we’re tackling a significant budget challenge, prioritizing what I call “back to the basics” to ensure we meet the mayor’s targets while delivering essential services to all agencies.

Secondly, we’re delving into the realm of artificial intelligence, leveraging San Francisco’s position as the epicenter of AI innovation to smartly integrate AI into public services. Our approach involves thorough experimentation, guided by our recently published generative AI guidelines, to ensure AI adoption enhances service delivery.

Thirdly, we’re spearheading the Fair-Shake Internet program, aiming to provide broadband access to underserved communities, particularly in affordable and public housing. This initiative, also known as “fiber to housing” or “fair shake Internet,” seeks to bridge the digital divide and ensure equitable access to technology across all demographics in San Francisco. When we talk about multigenerational households, we’re talking about kids who are learning from home, parents who might be working from the same household, and then maybe a senior generation that might be receiving medical services through telehealth. So, we need to make sure that those households are just as well serviced and can take advantage of this amazing technology boom that San Francisco is at the heart of.

IICA: What is your estimated it budget, and then what is the overall budget? And also, how many employees do you have?

Makstman: That’s a great question with a very complex answer. Unlike traditional organizations, San Francisco operates uniquely due to its dual status as a city and a county. Each agency, whether city- or county-based, maintains its own IT workforce, ranging from small teams to hundreds of staff members. This organizational structure stems from San Francisco’s historical role as the center of the Bay Area region, with agencies like the Public Utilities Commission serving a regional population far beyond the city limits. Consequently, estimating the overall IT budget is challenging, as each agency operates independently with its own budget and staff. For instance, the Department of Technology, with approximately 270 employees, manages a budget of around $150 [million] to $160 million, which represents a portion of the city’s total IT spending. Despite this decentralized approach, our mission reaches citywide, and we collaborate closely with each department’s CIO or IT director to ensure alignment and efficiency in our technology initiatives. This organizational setup sets San Francisco apart from other jurisdictions.

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

Makstman: I’m not sure I would say technology needs to be in the forefront of the agency’s mission or simply having technology for the sake of saying it’s there. Instead, it should serve the local government’s mission extensively and meaningfully.

During the COVID crisis, our team at the San Francisco COVID Command Center showcased how technology, alongside traditional methods, can aid in crisis response. We deploy technology where it enhances accessibility to city services, promotes equity through data analysis, and improves efficiency for city staff without hindrance. Our focus remains on deploying technology where it truly makes a difference in people’s lives, whether by extending services to working families, addressing inequities, or enhancing operational efficiency.

IICA: And moving to vendor relationships, how do you prefer to be contacted by vendors and how might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Makstman: When it comes to vendors reaching out, I’m always open to new ideas that add value to San Francisco’s services. Vendors who’ve studied our strategic plan and understand our mission are particularly welcome, as they can propose specific technologies to enhance our work. I’m less inclined towards generic sales pitches; what interests me are stories of how technology has improved services in other municipalities.

Also, while vendors are welcome to contact me, it’s important to note that I often delegate final technology decisions. Our teams, who operate the technology day-to-day, are the ones who ultimately select it. So, if a team has already indicated disinterest, contacting me won’t change that. I prioritize stories that demonstrate tangible improvements in local services over generic sales pitches.

IICA: Which IT project or implementation do you consider the most influential in this role or in a previous position?

Makstman: In my role within the city and county, we undertook significant cybersecurity initiatives, such as deploying protection against cyber attacks to all city computers and servers across agencies. This unprecedented effort required establishing a shared vision and collaboration among agencies, addressing organizational challenges, and building trust in the Office of Cybersecurity.

Similarly, during my tenure at Kaiser, I helped create, establish and develop a risk data team and create the first risk data lake reporting to enable all of our thousands of our customers to make strategic decisions based on data. This multiyear project involved fostering a data-driven culture, connecting disparate data sets to enhance risk assessment, and facilitating evidence-based decision-making.

These two projects exemplify the importance of long-term commitment, collaboration, and persistence in driving transformative change, both within large organizations and local government.

IICA: What has surprised you in government technology in general during the past 12 months?

Makstman: What surprises me the most is the rapid evolution of technology, particularly in the realm of artificial intelligence. While AI has been utilized for tasks like cybersecurity for some time, the pace at which it has advanced, thanks to companies like OpenAI, is astonishing. However, I’m also surprised by how quickly vendors have integrated AI into their products without a clear government use case. Despite its potential, there’s still uncertainty about how AI can effectively enhance public services. Currently, we’re in a phase of joint experimentation between vendors and local government professionals to determine the optimal applications of this technology. The challenge lies in identifying the sweet spot where AI can deliver clear value and improve outcomes for communities, a question that remains unanswered for now.

IICA: On a personal note, what are your hobbies outside of work and what do you enjoy?

Makstman: As a father of two girls, aged 14 and 10, my main hobby is spending quality time with them, cherishing every moment as they grow up quickly. Beyond that, I’ve realized the importance of engaging in activities that align with my values and bring tranquility to my life, especially after the challenges of COVID-19. I’ve taken up yoga and meditation, which not only help me stay calm but also bring qualities like flexibility and steadiness to my work. In terms of reading, I have a fondness for science fiction, stemming from my love for Star Trek, and books about technology and science. Currently, I’m reading a book by Ethan Mollick, a Wharton Business School professor, exploring the co-evolution of humans and AI. The book offers a unique perspective, shedding light on how artificial intelligence can serve as a valuable tool in our journey towards a better future.

IICA: What would you consider the most important priority between migrating to the cloud, looking at opportunities in generative AI, as you mentioned, or being heavily focused on cybersecurity?

Makstman: While cybersecurity holds a special place in my heart, it’s not the primary source of opportunity I see. Rather, what excites me most is the potential for technologists to join the realm of public service, particularly in local government. Cloud computing, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence are crucial, but what we truly need are individuals eager to bring their skills to transform local government. The challenge lies in enticing more technologists to see the vast potential in addressing the unique challenges of public service. By fostering dialogue with high schools and colleges, we can convey the immense opportunities awaiting those willing to tackle the captivating challenges of local government. With decades of experience, I can attest that working in local government offers some of the most intriguing challenges, making it essential to attract more talent to drive innovation and progress.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology magazine.