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Techwire One-on-One: State Parks CIO Discusses Telework, Modernizing Visitor Interaction

As part of its ongoing quest to more closely connect readers in gov tech and the technology industry, Techwire heard from Patrick Dennis, chief information officer at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, on his role; the rise of "Statewide Broadband as a Service"; and reaching visitors where they are.

This story is limited to Industry Insider — California members.
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Techwire’s editorial team brings readers in gov tech and the technology industry the latest news on California state, county and local government IT and innovation every day. As part of our ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, we’re periodically presenting a series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Patrick Dennis is chief information officer at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, a role he has held since September 2018. Dennis’s career at the state spans 25 years: He first joined the state Franchise Tax Board in 1993, where he managed software testing and did project implementation, before moving to the California Department of Technology in 2012 as a section chief and rising to branch manager three years later.

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?

Dennis: As the CIO at California State Parks, my role is to deliver information technology as a line of business, and to contribute as a strategic partner to my business stakeholders. To establish a partnership with Parks deputies to move IT from purely a service-based organization into a strategic business partner, focusing on providing digital investments to drive departmental efficiency and effectiveness. Today’s CIO must change previous perceptions of their role within an organization from purely a service provider and business enabler to an equally important “line of business.” My objective is to evolve State Parks IT from a cost center, and to take on the character, rigor, and practices of a business within a business and will continue to be responsive to our customer demands and proactive on anticipating our customer needs.

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

Dennis: State Parks is currently in the process of creating a California State Parks Strategic Operations Plan (SOP) that will continue building on the department’s transformative work in recent years. As CIO, I have been involved in the process from the beginning. I am looking forward to publishing our five-year IT Strategic Plan, which aligns with the ... business owners of the Departmental SOP within the next 12-18 months.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2020? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Dennis: Due to the (novel coronavirus) COVID-19 pandemic, many of the original initiatives for 2020 have had to be re-ordered on the fly. The remainder of 2020 will be focused on enabling a secure and effective mobile workforce. Although mobile workforce enablement was already underway prior to the pandemic, there is now an added urgency and support. In addition to mobile workforce enablement, there will be a focus on modernizing visitor automation, increasing access and automation of revenue collection. This includes implementing “touchless” payment options. A continued focus will be supporting larger departmental objectives around visitor access, revenue generation and public safety. The initiative that I am most excited about is the upcoming “Statewide Broadband as a Service” Parks Concession. The scope of this solicitation focuses on providing a Wi-Fi service with a “pay as you go” plan to park visitors while they are visiting a respective park. This “pay as you go” service will allow park visitors/campers to access high-speed broadband to support today’s and future generations of park visitors’ technology needs. I am excited about the opportunities this high-speed connectivity can bring to some of our more rural park locations. While staying true to the department’s mission and being sensitive to visitors who want to disconnect and enjoy nature, Wi-Fi will allow visitors to access basic park information such as viewing park maps for hiking and camping, directions, safety tips and emergency contacts.

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?

Dennis: I see “digital transformation” as an ongoing process that has no defined end or predefined finish line. Instead, I see digital transformation as a series of victories and milestones along the path of continual improvement. State Parks is implementing a single point-of-sale solution through our ReserveCalifornia reservation system. Additional visitor automation and the statewide broadband effort will help to serve as a basis to help accelerate the exciting Parks Transformation efforts. Digital transformation must take place in alignment with the department and administration’s strategic goals and objectives. Keeping in mind, these rarely span beyond five years or so, and must be regularly revisited. Additionally, I think it is incumbent upon me as CIO to consider social and economic considerations and motivators to apply technology to help drive human-centric solutions and outcomes.

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

Dennis: The Parks IT Office’s budget is approximately $18 million annually and we have around 65 positions, all across the state, with the majority located in our downtown Sacramento office.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Dennis: Although I would love to be able to respond to emails and return every call I get, I find it increasingly difficult to do so. I receive many random emails and cold calls. This is typically not a successful method to get my attention. My schedule and responsibilities rarely allow me to return emails and respond to vendor cold calls. Typically, if a vendor comes recommended from a known and trusted colleague or mentor, I am more than willing to take the time to listen. The state IT community is small and interconnected, we regularly share discussions on both challenges and successes. This allows us to share information about solutions and products that have either worked for us or others. It is important for vendors to align with advocates who can translate how their products are applicable. Relationships and trust are paramount.

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

Dennis: I am proud of the progress that we have been able to make on the ReserveCalifornia camping reservation system. Over the past year, we have made significant progress addressing system performance issues. We have been able to successfully mitigate and prevent BOT activity, which was disrupting equitable access for all to prime camping locations. However, there is more work to do, we are working very hard to address UI/UX issues that have caused frustration amongst our system users during the busiest on-sale hours. Additionally, we are scheduled to have a point-of-sale equipment rollout completed the end of this year. Finally, the development of a Third-Party API will allow us to share inventory data across multiple open data platforms and with our private camping industry partners. From the public safety side, State Parks recently replaced its aging communication infrastructure connecting lifeguard towers to lifeguard headquarters (HQ) throughout all state beaches and inland lakes, ensuring our lifeguard first responders can act quickly to incidents on our state beaches. In addition to replacing the aging infrastructure, we also implemented a new incident reporting system (SEACOM) that transformed the way lifeguards report incidents throughout the day and end of shift from a paper-based system to a fully integrated electronic reporting system. With upcoming efforts like Statewide Broadband as a service, multiple visitor automation efforts, and continued expansion of CA Parks' use of data, I am excited for the future.

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

Dennis: Having previously worked for the California Department of Technology (CDT) on the development of the new Project Approval Lifecycle and the IT Procurement Modernization effort, I have had a unique opportunity to be part of some of the improvement efforts in this area. I know the state’s IT leaders are paying attention to the challenges around IT procurement. I think the work we have done to help draw a bright line to CDT on IT project-related procurements has helped CIOs like myself know where to go from a policy and practice perspective on procurements. Even though improvements have been made over the last few years in the area of policy and authority, as with any organization, there is always room for increasing process efficiency and speed.

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

Dennis: I stay “plugged in” with the daily Techwire posts in addition to other government technology media such as GNC, e.Republic,* etc. It is helpful for me to stay abreast of the ongoing shifts in how other government agencies are being proactive in assessing and addressing the new emerging risks and the ever-changing priorities.

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

Dennis: I have never had a lot of serious hobbies. I enjoy spending my free time with my wife and children. I have two adult daughters and a 10-year-old son who keeps me very busy with his sports activities and educational pursuits. I am happiest when I get to spend time with my family. I also enjoy cooking, running, camping, fishing and an occasional game of golf and hope to find more time to pursue these activities. I am not a big recreational reader, but when I do read, it’s usually history and non-fiction that keep my interest.

*e.Republic is Techwire's parent company.