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Techwire One-on-One: Toxic Substances Control CIO Discusses Modernization amid Pandemic

Jennifer Benson, deputy director and chief information officer at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, discusses the department's ongoing modernization and how the COVID-19 pandemic offers IT an opportunity to change the conversation.

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.

Jennifer Benson is deputy director and chief information officer at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), roles she has held since May 2017. Benson’s career with the state spans more than six years, and she was previously an IT project manager at the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) – DTSC’s umbrella agency – for more than three years. Benson has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management information systems, and several technical certifications from VMware, the Office of Government Commerce and the Project Management Institute.

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?

Benson: I’ve been in my role for a little over three years now. So, I am in a, I would say, fortunate position where I’m also a deputy director within the department. It does elevate my decision-making a little bit and give me a little more visibility within the organization.

I would say traditionally, (the) CIO’s focus is on operations and service delivery. And making sure the network, email, servers – basically, that the enterprise – is up and running. But now, with the speed of the digital transformation as a result of the COVID-19 – and I think the industry’s been going this way anyways, where CIOs are a much more strategic position, spending more time on technology services to meet the business needs and help the department achieve its mission. So, when I first started, I really focused the first couple years on understanding the … environment, building a culture, addressing critical deficiencies and improving our foundational operations.

During this last fiscal year, I really tried to focus my efforts from a tactical lens to more … strategic. In doing that, COVID-19 really helped that. It really helped us change that conversation. And IT becoming the traditional service provider, to now being a real strategic partner within the department. As CIO, I try to evangelize the digital government and transitioning us from more of an administrative function … instead of that traditional order taker, to leading and shaping the digital transformation. I think it’s really important that CIOs have a real great opportunity to embrace the changes that came as a result of COVID-19. While there’s a very negative impact to the world, I think it also gives us an opportunity to embrace some real change in technology.

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

Benson: Well, as deputy director of the department, again, another advantage I have in this position is, I was able to participate in the department’s strategic plan. During its development, and we’re just on the cusp of releasing the final; the draft has been posted for some time now. I’m working with (DTSC Information Officer Barbara Zumwalt)’s team and we’ve been working really closely to get that final strategic plan released. And we are, in tandem, working on a key performance indicators (KPI) dashboard that ties back to that strategic plan. I really appreciate, again, that partnership with our office of communications and our performance management group. We’ve been, really, able to work together to come up with a framework for our KPI tracking and management and we’re really excited to get that released.

We’re doing an initial release with some high-level KPIs and then we’re continuing to improve and provide more level of detail for some of the specific areas. We’ve been working pretty closely on high-level and then we’ve also been working on one use case to get more detail to tell the story around these KPIs. A lot of what DTSC does, we measure it in statistics. But it’s important for us to tell the story, and so we’ve been working on the story maps using the Esri stack, and we’ve been trying to not just give you a number, but what does that number mean and what’s all the work that goes into those KPIs?

Editor’s note: The final strategic plan will likely be released in the third quarter.

And then subsequent, also in tandem, I’m working on a parallel level strategic plan. I’m very excited about this initiative because we started the process before COVID-19. Now, the IT organization really has the unique opportunity to move some of the technology initiatives rapidly. Where sometimes things were taking longer, now we can remove some of the roadblocks and continue (proving) that the digital transformation and providing support to our department for their mission and achieving supporting operations.

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?

Benson: We are in the process of assessing our legacy systems and looking to modernize some of those. Modernization of our critical IT systems is on top of the list. And then, along with that, just the whole digital transformation, we have a lot of manual paper-driven processes. So, we’re looking to focus on improving those tools and modernizing a lot of the administrative processes, (improving) some of the critical processes for our mission-critical operations. For example, we have a lot of, like I mentioned, paper-driven processes. We have the traditional, which a lot of departments are probably faced with, the colored folders that wrap around various floors and desks for review and approvals and often those folders get stuck on a desk or they get misplaced. And sometimes they get lost. We have a really fantastic opportunity to embrace the digital transformation, and that’s one area where we can really improve. And get some efficiencies for our staff.

And then lastly, I just want to mention … our development team is working on a proof of concept for a mobile inspection tool for field staff. So, we began that effort using the Esri platform with the Apple iOS devices. Part of the COVID-19 solution for getting people working quickly – the department purchased several Chromebooks which are on an Android-based OS. And so, those can also be used in the field. So, those particular Chromebooks we purchased can turn into tablets. So, we are looking at expanding our mobile footprint and how we can deliver services electronically with our field staff and workers, who are now working from home; and also, even prior (to the pandemic), we had a lot of field staff.

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?

Benson: Good transformation is ongoing and ever-evolving, as most CIOs probably respond. And as new technology evolves, there’s going to be new technology that’s discovered, so it’s really never-ending. But again, I’d have to say, the blessing in disguise for COVID-19 is, we’ve really been able to transform some of the operational processes very quickly. Things that – for example, we … procured some Chromebooks. That was an immediate procurement to address the staff teleworking when COVID-19 hit. As the CIO, I was concerned about making sure people had devices at their home offices to connect to the network. … I was concerned about the overseas manufacturers because of the shutdown. China was – we were shutting down travel between the two countries. … We started calling around to our vendor partners and found some equipment and inventory in Sacramento. So, that equipment was the Chromebooks. It was a very low-cost investment. Chromebooks are … they’re less expensive than a full-blown laptop. They were in stock locally, so we were able to get them quickly. I have to say that this was a new technology for my team. So, the Google Android technology was new but – I couldn’t be more proud of the team, that they quickly stood up the back-end environment, they added all the devices to our infrastructure for security and management. In less than a week. And then we were able to deploy it to the end users very quickly. I was really concerned, not only about obtaining the Chromebooks, but I started hearing from families that had personal computers that were connecting to our virtual desktop environment but they had to share it with their spouses and family members. And it was becoming a real challenge at the home for people to do their work. So, these were a quick, easy way to get them an official device in the wake of the pandemic.
We purchased 200 Chromebooks. And we also – I have to give a shout-out to our partners that have helped with this expansion. Because not only did we have to get devices, we had to reconfigure our back end and expand the VMware virtual desktop infrastructure to support the increased capacity. I just have to give a shout-out – between the CalEPA shared services team that helps pitch in when we have these types of emergencies and our vendor partnerships from VMware and NWN and Shandam Consulting. We wouldn’t have been successful without these types of partnerships and existing relationships. Working together, we were able to be successful in delivering that additional infrastructure and getting people the devices they need to be successful teleworking.

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

Benson: Well, I can’t give you an exact number. I’ll just describe our organization a little bit, because it’s a distributed budget. My program is called the Office of Environmental Information Management. Within my program, we have 76 … staff. And of those 76 staff, 57 are information technology staff. My program is in a unique situation where we have a small unit that is dedicated to supporting our business operations for issuing USEPA IDs, for the universe of … handlers and hazardous waste transporters. In addition to that, the IT budget, when programs have specific IT needs that are specific for the program, they budget … for that and we procure and manage the acquisitions. … For example, the Hazardous Waste Management Program (HWMP), we have several applications within HWMP and … HWMP would, for example, budget for the applications that they need. So, it’s a little difficult to put an exact number on it.

Editor’s note: The Office of Environmental Information Management sits within DTSC. The 2019-2020 Fiscal Year state budget shows that DTSC’s approved budget, encompassing all funds, is nearly $367 million.

The department’s about 1,000 staff … and two of our core programs are the Site Mitigation and Restoration Program, which is basically the cleanup program, they go and clean up brownfields. … The second-largest program is … HWMP. They’re basically the preventative and permitting side of the house, where they’re permitting the hazardous waste facilities, they’re going out and doing the inspections. And then the third group is called Safer Consumer Products. But the majority of our field staff are in Site Mitigation and HWMP, and that represents a little over half of our department. Between the two programs, there’s about 500 staff.

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

Benson: So, obviously, vendor relationships and partnership are key to our success. It is hard to keep up on emails, phone calls from the vendors. I typically – I use existing relationships for references. My IT career has been primarily in the Sacramento area. It is a small community here, so I’ve been able to establish and maintain contacts for many years. LinkedIn is a great way to be contacted. You have an existing network, so most of those LinkedIn connections … are from existing relationships or references.

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

Benson: I’m actually most proud of our culture, and building a culture of innovation and passion. I would say that … our staff and our department are really invested in our mission and I have to say that’s the same way with our IT organization. So, I’m most proud of transitioning the culture to a very open and transparent culture, where management and staff are in the decision-making process related to technology initiative, and being collaborative and transparent within the department as well. And then, the second component is building trust within the organization. So, building trust that IT can deliver value and deliver successful products. Building that record of accomplishment within the organization.

But I do have to call out one thing. I am very proud of this. We did receive an award last year … the 2019 NASCIO award that we received. The only state of California department that actually won the award. We’re very proud. That project takes several parts of our organization to be successful. It was an effort, and I’m looking forward to continuing to improve … tools that can help our programs be successful.

Editor’s note: In October, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers recognized DTSC’s Emergency Management Innovation Project, built to assist in the identification and removal of hazardous materials after wildfires, with a win in the Information Communications Technology (ICT) Innovations category, at its 2019 NASCIO State IT Recognition Awards.

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

Benson: I read a lot of publications and white papers from the vendor community. I rely pretty heavily on Gartner, the last couple of years, and Microsoft, VMware and Cisco. Of course, I keep up on Techwire … . And then, one of the great advantages of being a government employee is, we are able to participate in a lot of the vendor- and government-sponsored education and training opportunities. So, I do try to attend the technical trainings. (California) Department of Technology has events and training that I participate in. And then, the other thing I really try to focus on is training and education related to environmental protection and regulation. I think it’s really important as an IT organization, for its success, to understand our business operations. The more I’m educated on environment protection, the better I can serve our customers. I think it’s really important that I’m staying up and my staff are staying up on all the aspects related to our mission.

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

Benson: So, well, I love the outdoors and spending time with my family. Especially hiking and getting out and camping. That’s one of the reasons I love to work for CalEPA and DTSC, is because I truly believe in our mission to protect the environment in California. It not only aligns with my core values, it’s something that I really truly believe in. I enjoy the outdoors. I enjoy our environment, and to work with a department where that’s the mission brings me a lot of joy.

Techwire: Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

Benson: I talked about culture. I just want to say that the team I have within OEIM is just very passionate, innovative and smart. They’re just capable of delivering amazing solutions, so I’m really excited to see what we can accomplish in 2020. This COVID-19 has really given us a fantastic opportunity to seize the day and bring some really creative solutions to the organization.

Editor's note: this interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.