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Successfully Staffing the Cloud

Innovation starts with revolutionizing the skill set of the IT office, writes Stephen Goldsmith.

Many state, city and county IT offices are caught in a bit of a Star Trek-ian time warp — professional staff members originally recruited for an on-premises business model face substantial obstacles when moving application software and hosting to the cloud. CIOs must align their staffers’ skill sets with the constantly evolving demands of cloud computing, but few IT offices can keep pace.  

Cook County, Ill.’s Bureau of Technology (BOT) is a positive outlier to the trend of IT offices that struggle to upgrade and adapt staff talent to the cloud. In 2015, Cook County awarded $154 million in IT contracts to fund the BOT’s four major application modernization projects known within the bureau as the “big bang” — integrated justice, integrated property, integrated revenue and an enterprise resource planning system.

Simona Rollinson, the county CIO, paired the influx of new IT contracts with a novel approach to staffing. In 2014 and 2015 combined, Rollinson hired or promoted roughly a third of the bureau’s employees. In the same period, she wrote or revised a third of its job postings. I recently spoke with Rollinson about the logic behind her new staffing approach and how she is taking the BOT into the cloud.

To manage so many large-scale projects simultaneously, Rollinson divided the BOT’s procurement portfolio among a number of cloud service providers, each specializing in different areas. Internally, she hired service-oriented workers with an eye for management and systems integration to facilitate these vendor relations — people who, as Rollinson put it, “understand the business of Cook County.” She charged these workers not only with making sure individual IT services are fully functional, but also with communicating both internally and externally to ensure that Cook County’s many clouds each serve a greater networked system.

Many of the new hires came from the private sector, where vendor management and system architecture have long been priorities. Rollinson targeted the BOT’s job description language to appeal to these workers and their experience. She also combined formerly separate job postings in order to get maximum value out of new employees and increase system integration. Of the $154 million in new IT contracts, $132 million serve more than one agency, so Rollinson promoted IT staffers with previous experience in different areas of the Cook County government who could communicate effectively across silos.

Importantly, the staffing transformation presents opportunities for public-sector IT workers operating in a changing job market — as commodity work like server maintenance moves out, employees can focus their career development on the high-value analytic work moving in.

To facilitate such a large volume of contracts, Rollinson set up an in-house law firm in the form of two attorneys dedicated to reviewing contracts and building templates for working with vendors. Finally, she established a change management group to ensure new technology didn’t interfere with existing practices.

The pace of innovation is unmistakable. As Rollinson said, government is a “target-rich environment” for disruption, and that process starts with revolutionizing the skill set of the IT office. Now is a pivotal moment when government agencies are moving their work into the cloud, and it is critical that this transition is capably managed by knowledgeable staff members.

This commentary was published by Governing.


Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as deputy mayor of New York and mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization.