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Techwire One-on-One: San Diego CIO on His Changing Role, RFPs Underway

“I think the traditional role of the CIO has really evolved significantly over the past few years, and the CIO role is becoming much more aligned with the business and strategy of organizations,” says Chief Information Officer Jonathan Behnke.

Jonathan Behnke
Jonathan Behnke, San Diego CIO
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 leaders.

Jonathan Behnke is the longtime chief information officer at the city of San Diego, a position he has held since July 2014. Among his initiatives as CIO, he has led the city’s digitization process, which has eliminated the handling of many thousands of pieces of paper; and the expansion of its award-winning Get It Done app, which connects residents with 311 services. Behnke praises the “amazing teamwork” across the enterprise that has enabled these and other IT initiatives. He joined San Diego in March 2009 and was its IT operations manager before being named CIO. Before joining the city, he was senior technical solutions engineer at Milwaukee-based et alia. Behnke holds a bachelor’s from Wisconsin Lutheran College. Last month, he discussed what the COVID-19 pandemic could mean to future local service delivery, at the Los Angeles Virtual Digital Government Summit.

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?

Behnke: I work with our stakeholders, my management team, our vendor partners to develop a vision, a road map for the city’s application and technology portfolio, and then deliver the services to support the organizational goals. We have over 30 city departments with very different business models and over 400 applications. So, it’s important for me to understand the priorities, the regulatory requirements, application road maps, PCI (payment card industry) requirements and newer changing programs. And many times, as we learn about what the departments are trying to accomplish, we see opportunities to streamline processes with our existing technology. One example is that over the past couple of years, we’ve replaced over 600 paper forms with online forms and eliminated the processing of tens of thousands of pieces of paper. We also have a Strategic Technology Advisory Committee whose membership includes every department director, so that ensures that our directors can provide feedback on priorities, and also learn about our major technology initiatives and new tools that can improve their services.

And I think the traditional role of the CIO has really evolved significantly over the past few years, and the CIO role is becoming much more aligned with the business and strategy of organizations. Digital transformation is driving a better customer experience, more data for decision-makers, new revenue streams and 24-7 digital services. And CIOs are also working, I think, more with vendor partners to explore opportunities for innovation and planning for their technology road maps. We see a lot of new generations of technology coming on quickly, and I think it’s important for us to stay on top of the new trends and what’s coming in the pipeline.

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

Behnke: Our strategic plan involves input from all city departments, and I provide an IT perspective about the ways to accomplish the organizational goals and learn about the priorities of over 30 city departments and how they really fit into the overall strategy. The department of IT is continuously partnering with the organization in developing road maps and exploring opportunities for innovation. We also evaluate the pain points and business priorities to make sure that the IT services align in solving the problems and adding value and efficiency to the services. And I think the COVID situation has been a catalyst for showing the value of IT and the ability to speed innovation and digital transformation. Every year, we complete an update to our IT strategic plan and make adjustments to shifts in technology, new security needs, threats, vulnerabilities and explore new opportunities to innovate and drive more value and efficiencies into the IT services.

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?

Behnke: We have quite a few RFPs on the street and in progress right now. We have a major IT services RFP for enterprise compute services, workplace services and application development and maintenance service. That’s in the late stage of the process, and we anticipate an RFP for SAP (systems applications and products) staff augmentation, and that will help us with SAP technical resources for our enterprise SAP system. That SAP system runs the majority of core city processes, so it’s really one of our most important applications. We also just released an RFP for public safety radios to help us to replace our fleet of radios that are reaching end-of-life, both in police and fire departments. And we’re also evaluating cloud services and hyper-converged infrastructure to replace end-of-life hardware in our data center, so those are just a few of the things going on.

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?

Behnke: I think digital transformation encompasses the customer experience, business process changes, cultural changes and then the technology that ties it all together to add to efficiencies, drive new revenue growth, improve the customer experience, get more value from data. And as we’ve seen in the past few years, it can be a disruptive force to industries. San Diego’s made significant progress in the past few years, expanding digital services and value with projects like the expansion of our award-winning Get It Done app for 311 services, online permitting, expansion of digital payments, efficiencies for mobile technology,  and we consolidated over 30 systems to manage enterprise assets and capital improvement projects. And I don’t see digital transformation ever being finished, as there will always be opportunities to improve the customer experience, add new digital channels and new opportunities to streamline services.

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

Behnke: Our IT budget is approximately $113 million, and we have 134 employees in IT, and the overall city budget is about $4 billion in Fiscal Year '21.

Techwire: Do the majority of those 134 employees work remote currently?

Behnke: I would say the majority are working remotely right now, and it’s going really well. I think we’re seeing high productivity and I think even with the absence of that in-person contact, I think we’re seeing more communication and we’re seeing employees reach out to each other because they really need this network of support. So, I think it’s expanded some of the communication network.

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?

Behnke: The best way to contact me is via my city email address, but I do see quite a bit of traffic on LinkedIn. Our vendor partners can reference our IT Strategic Plan that we published on the city website and get a great overview of the departments, our services and our initiatives.

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

Behnke: I have an amazing team, and they’ve completed so many great projects that it’s hard to think of just one. But I think what really resonates with me is the amazing teamwork that we have here across the city that’s allowed us to do so much digital transformation and improve services internally and to the residents and businesses on the outside. Our IT team is continuing to drive digital transformation across the city, streamline services, improve the user experience, and our Performance Analytics department has created the very successful 311 app called Get It Done. Our Development Services department has moved all permitting online this year. So, I think many of these accomplishments have been recognized recently with the Digital Cities survey awards and the Government Experience awards. But seeing improvements to the customer experience and that citywide teamwork allowing us to make all the improvements really has been the best part of it.

Editor’s note: San Diego was a winner last month in the annual Digital Cities survey presented by the Center for Digital Government (CDG)*.

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

Behnke: Public-sector procurement can take some time, and I’d always like it to go a little faster. But most of the vendor community that we work with really does seem to have a good understanding of public-sector procurement roles and does a good job of responding to RFPs, requests for quotes. Most of the vendor reps understand the time element of any procurement that we do. So, we’ve been able to make the system work for us and get a lot accomplished.

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

Behnke: There are a lot of great daily feeds out there. I’m an avid reader of Gartner Research, Techwire, Government Technology*, PTI, other daily CIO feeds and cyber news feeds. And our vendor partners have been a great resource. Most of them really understand the public sector well and know about the common problems that we’re all trying to solve or optimize. And I’m also a member of MISAC (the Municipal Information Systems Association of California), and they’ve got a great forum and resources. And the Metropolitan Information Exchange is a national group of CIOs from large cities and counties that I’m a member of. And they’re a great sounding board on public-sector CIO issues innovation and policy discussions.

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

Behnke: I really enjoy mountain biking, but my orthopedic doctor suggested that I take up golf after seeing me a little too often, so I’ve been doing that a little more. I’ve also built a pretty elaborate home automation system controlling almost everything in the house, and actually reduced my overall electric usage by about 30 percent in the past year by limiting fan power and optimizing the time-of-use plan. It lets me keep up my skills on a Linux server and still do a little coding and stay on top of new trends which can … scale up to a larger model. I thought about, ‘Boy, how could we scale this to a large city organization,’ so, lots of opportunities there.

And I enjoy reading the latest tech feeds, news feeds and some of the cool research going on in the quantum physics world. There’s a lot of work going on right now. Physicists are, I think, in great debate on some of the topics because the world is changing and research is finding new things, much of it conflicting with previous findings.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.
*The Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine are part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.