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Techwire One-on-One: Long Beach CIO on Pandemic, Modernization

“Digital transformation will never be finished. In my mind, it’s aligning people and process and technology to enable government to deliver new services in new ways. Including digital of course, taking advantage of those emerging technologies that continue to come out. And that’s why it’s never going to be over,” says Lea Eriksen, chief information officer at the city of Long Beach.

As part of Techwire’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 and cybersecurity leaders.

Lea Eriksen is chief information officer for the city of Long Beach and director of its Technology and Innovation Department (TID), roles she has held since January 2018. Her more than seven-year career at Long Beach began in February 2014, when she joined the city as budget manager. Eriksen served as assistant director of finance for two-and-a-half years before being named CIO. Prior to joining Long Beach, Eriksen was with the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, for nearly 16 years.
Lea Eriksen
Lea Eriksen, chief information officer at the city of Long Beach.
She has a bachelor’s in public administration, sociology from Miami University, an XMBA from the Williams College of Business at Xavier University and a Master of Business Administration, also from Xavier.

Techwire: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role; and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Eriksen: The city of Long Beach is a full-service city ... with an airport, a port, Long Beach gas, oil, a health department. And the Technology and Innovation Department is a full-service technology department. We create everything from a data center and our radios and security cameras to ... end-user support, etc. So, I would say my role is to ... shape the vision of technology for the future, for the whole city. And to also support all of the current technology services that are being provided (through) our partner departments. I think what has shifted is, we shifted from an internal support department to ... a convener-collaborator on issues and things like digital inclusion, data privacy, our smart city work and on the digital engagement. All with the focus of improving the quality of life for our residents. And so ... I want to make sure that I’m also doing traditional CIO responsibilities of ensuring confidentiality and integrity and availability of our information systems, but also having that future focus and making sure that we’re thinking holistically about how to best provide services to the city’s residents. And during the pandemic, we were doing everything from ... continuing critical operations to making sure we were also focused on pandemic response and planning and providing data and transparency. That was an interesting year.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Eriksen: If you’re talking about the city’s strategic plan, we’re in the middle of drafting a 2030 strategic vision of what the city will look like in 2030 and how do we get there. Right before the pandemic hit, myself and a fellow director actually co-facilitated a visioning session. He asked me to do that role and so it was kind of cool. Of course, it was early March 2019, we were there with all the Long Beach managers and all the different departments, visioning what would 2030 look like and how would we get there, what kind of organization, what kind of internal infrastructure, what kind of systems to support that vision? Then, the pandemic hit and what was interesting was some of the systems and some of the collaboration that they were talking about immediately had to get implemented within the year. Those communication collaboration tools like (Microsoft) Teams and (Cisco) Webex, so all of that, it was interesting how some of that got fast-tracked during the pandemic. They’re going to be doing a community input process in the next few months and then the goal is to wrap it up and present it, I think, this summer. One of the things we did is because we had so much work that was done on individual departmental strategic plans or initiatives – like, in Technology and Innovation, we have a smart city strategy, that just recently got adopted by council. We also have our Digital Inclusion Roadmap process that we’re very close to finalizing, so the strategic vision is based on those 25 different plans including some that the Technology and Innovation Department spearheaded. There’s lots of community engagement and different processes for those.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Eriksen: One project that has been in the works, that is really close to going live, is we’re calling it our One Number project. We don’t have a 311 call center. But what we do have is something like 70, 80 published numbers to reach different city services. And what we’re planning on doing is using interactive voice response and natural language processing to encourage our residents to call one main number, which is (562) 570-5000, and they’ll be asked (by a machine voice) ... why are you calling today and they can say a few words and get where they need to go. That’s one project. Right before the pandemic hit, we had gone live with our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) Phase 1 project, which is financials for the entire unit. We’re going to be, in the next 12 months, going live with Phase 2, which is our budget, HR, payroll. That’s a huge project. And then we have some smart city challenges because the City Council just approved the smart city ... strategy. In fact, today, we already have some challenges related to ... we’re a partner with City Innovate and we have the Startup in Residence program, where we issue challenges and the vendor community will propose solutions to those challenges. That’s part of the smart city initiative. Just in general, stimulus funds – we’ve got that infusion of funds. There’s going to be some RFPs and programs related, more for digital inclusion. That was one of the things we did recently, was we put out proposals to partner with community-based organizations and nonprofits to distribute devices ... to community members who were disconnected. There’s going to be more of that. There’s also probably going to be grant application programs and other things – there’s other technology solutions that might come out of these programs that need to be issued. Our fiber network – we’re in the midst of planning that infrastructure fiber network, and probably in about a year, we’ll be ready to bid that out. That’s connecting all of our city facilities and also having fiber within 2 miles of anywhere in the city, so that will help facilitate economic development and digital inclusion. And then cyber – there’s going to probably be some cyber-related RFPs coming out. We’re also studying digital access and digital identity.

Techwire: How do you define “digital transformation,” and how far along is your organization in that process? How will you know when it's finished?

Eriksen: Digital transformation will never be finished. In my mind, it’s aligning people and process and technology to enable government to deliver new services in new ways. Including digital of course, taking advantage of those emerging technologies that continue to come out. And that’s why it’s never going to be over. It’s going to be a process of challenging the status quo and seeing what’s out there and working to transform our operations and our service delivery. In terms of how far along we are, we’re proud of being a Top 10 Digital City, named for 10 years in a row by the Center for Digital Government*, so there’s definitely a lot of excellent examples of our digital services and programs. But we definitely know that we have more to do and to make it a more pervasive culture of innovation and transformation. The Smart City Initiative that I mentioned that was passed by City Council, that is going to be a helpful document to show our vision of advancing solutions to civic challenges by engaging the community, the staff, the private sector to explore and implement emerging technology and take advantage of data. That Smart City strategy, I see as helping us to get there and when we do so in a way that’s in accordance with our guiding principles. The guiding principles include designing our solutions for equity, earning public trust, cultivating local expertise and building civic resilience.

Editor’s Note: Find the 2020 Digital Cities Survey here.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Eriksen: Our TID budget is $60 million, that’s for the department. We’re budgeted for 178 (full-time employees), and we actually have about 166 actual employees and there are about 30 contractors. And then our citywide budget is $2.8 billion and 5,600 FTE.

Techwire: 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?

Eriksen: I definitely get a lot of emails, LinkedIn requests and phone calls. There’s so many that it’s a struggle for me to respond or truly read each one and be thoughtful about each one. I do skim; I skim all my messages. The ones that I feel like are of interest, I will either respond or I ask my team to respond. The LinkedIn messages that ... are more than just a request but actually have a message, they do get more of my attention. But really what I like and what my team likes is when the vendor community is educated about our initiatives and maybe what systems we are currently using. There have been cases where vendors will try to pitch something that we already have in place, and that doesn’t go over very well. ... Doing that research, being aware of what is in different parts of Long Beach and being able to articulate how their solution will add value to what we’re doing in fitting the actual need that we have in our community, is really helpful. One of the things in our smart city project, we went on to develop an unsolicited pilot proposal program; we have a form for vendors to fill out that explains their product, and some of them might lead to some actual pilots or it might generate conversations just about the service. I look forward to that being implemented because I think that’s going to be a better way for us essentially to intake and understand all the solutions that are out there. Our goal is to have something live on that in the summer as well. On the form and the process. We don’t want to miss something just because it got lost in emails.

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

Eriksen: If you asked me a year ago, I would have talked about what we did in 2019 in the department, which was go live with the first phase of the ERP in the spring. And then, we moved into a brand new City Hall with a new data center and transformational infrastructure technology all throughout the building in the summer of 2019. Those are two once-in-a-lifetime career projects that happened. But I think what happened was because we did those projects all at the same time, the team-building that got developed, the way we worked together, the hard work ethic and the infrastructure that was put in place positioned us to really address the pandemic. I’m really proud of what the team did with our pandemic response. The city of Long Beach has its own health department, so we had an even bigger responsibility to do everything from the testing now to the vaccinations to using the data in policy-level decisions because we have our own health orders. And so, we had to make sure we maintained our critical operations while at the same time setting up the technology infrastructure and data for the EOC operations and response. And then later, we pivoted to helping with resiliency and recovery efforts including digital inclusion ... . The hybrid work environment too, pivoting to telework both for ourselves and for the workplace. We were experiencing exhaustion and uncertainty and fear and the team really stepped up and worked really, really hard. I’m really proud of the department and how we rose to the challenge of the pandemic. We really had to be agile and responsive, and things that might have taken months or years, we were able to set up in weeks, in days. I think it just showed the resiliency that we had as a department that we had cultivated, and the resiliency of our employees that they were able to do that.

Techwire: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Eriksen: I do have a finance background, so I’m keenly aware of, for procurement, why we have those rules and regulations for fairness and ethics and assuring accountability and being good stewards of our taxpayer dollars. I do understand that, but I also feel like those rules can be a barrier to innovation and to being able to explore new and emerging technology. What we have done with the smart city initiative I just mentioned is we are working very proactively with our procurement office to come up with these ... pilot projects and ways of putting out challenge statements that are less prescriptive and more general so that we can get smaller companies or more emerging technology solutions to come in and present us solutions and then pilot it. And if it works, then we would work to scale it, and if it doesn’t work, if it fails, we just will adapt and get rid of it. I think one of the challenges has been there are opportunities to do pilots but then how do you scale ... ? What we are trying to do is, proactively on the front end, make sure we have a methodology that (allows us to) pilot projects both unsolicited vendor ones, city-led challenges, and then a third category would be community challenges. We work with community members who come up with challenges and we would do these pilot projects and then see where they go.

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

Eriksen: I definitely read GovTech* Today. That’s definitely an excellent source of general government technology news. For general city topics – because I feel like ... I’m more effective in my role if I understand the bigger picture and not just focus on technologies – I read (International City/County Management Association) ICMA smart read, and Governing* Daily (newsletter). And then there’s Cities Today for smart city topics. There’s also (the Municipal Information Systems Association of California) MISAC, which is a California technology newsletter ... and then we have a Gartner subscription. I generally tend to skim some of these articles or the headlines, and then I’ll click on and read the ones that are of interest or I share them with my team.

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

Eriksen: I used to read lots of books. I do not have a lot of spare time any more so ... . It’s taken me years to get through some books, but one of the book series that I’m reading that I find really interesting is, it’s Yuval Noah Harari, he wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I’m finding myself reading books that are more relevant to where we’ve come or where we’re going. That series is fascinating. The 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, that book is thought-provoking. Part of the reason, in part because of that book, when the city had the opportunity to join the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, we did ... . Those types of books like that are very thought-provoking. And then, I’m very focused on my family, so anything I can do with my family in my spare time. There’s TV shows we like to watch – we used to watch “Game of Thrones” or now it’s “The Mandalorian.” And there’s Netflix documentaries. I also like getting out in nature. Going to Rosie’s Dog Beach or El Dorado Nature (Center) trails. There’s a lot of things that can operate safely in the pandemic, where you can get out and about in nature. And then lastly, I really enjoy wine, so I can’t wait to start doing wine trips again.

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

*The Center for Digital Government, Government Technology magazine and Governing are part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.