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Dallas CIO on Operations and Serving Departments in a City of 1.3M

As part of Industry Insider — Texas’ ongoing efforts to educate readers on state and local government, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Bill Zielinski joined the city of Dallas as CIO in June 2020 after serving 30 years in federal government. In that time, he was assistant commissioner of the information technology category for the General Services Administration, the executive lead for implementing the governmentwide Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act and served as CIO of the Social Security Administration. Zielinski now speaks passionately of operations and smart cities projects. His team has 260 employees, and they have a $140 million IT budget. Here are the highlights from a recent interview with Industry Insider — Texas.

Industry Insider — Texas: Why Dallas?

Zielinski: I was thinking about end-of-career aspirations and goals. I didn’t want to leave government — I’m the child of public servants. I wanted to get back into operations where I was much closer to those who I’m trying to serve. So where better to do that than in a city, and where better to do that than the ninth largest city in the nation. Right? There was some natural kind of alignment between what I would like to do as I close out my career and opportunities that made themselves available in the city of Dallas.

Industry Insider: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role?

Zielinski: I think in terms of the role of the CIO, I think it’s a two-parter. I think there’s the answer that is in the city of Dallas. And then also in general in terms of what [CIOs] do, toward the broader mission of the organization. At the city of Dallas, our IT organization is centralized. We provide central technology services to all the 40-plus departments in the city. Any and every mission space that you can think of — from the public safety missions of police and fire to sanitation to animal services to the library — we provide those kinds of centralized enterprise-class services that are used and consumed by all of the departments in carrying out their missions.

But we also work with individual departments for the specialized capabilities that they need to meet their mission space. So in terms of the city of Dallas, it really is a central technology service provider, from everything from enterprise-class services to mission-specific or department-specific capabilities.

In general, when I think about the role of a CIO in an organization, I like the model that kind of looks at four parts of it. One is just purely as a technologist, when people want to know what are the new and emerging technologies that are out there? How is it that we could utilize different technologies? How was it that things like predictive analytics or other artificial intelligence fit into our mission set? The second piece is what I just described at the city of Dallas as operator. I run the services that are utilized and consumed across the city. And then it starts to get to the exciting and fun stuff, which is really in and around strategy. Looking at how [the city] outlines its broader strategies, the things that are priorities and important to it. How is it that technology can be leveraged to deliver on those strategies and enable us to accomplish our goals and objectives in a strategic way. And then the fourth block is a catalyst in really kind of instigating innovation. Looking at how we can utilize technology in a transformational sort of way that really allows us to move forward in the city.

Industry Insider: In your tenure, what is your project or your achievement that you’re most proud of so far, or in process?

Zielinski: So [there are] lots of things that we have going on, but if I had to pick one. ... We’ve implemented and launched a brand-new P25-compliant public safety radio system that is a regional deployment. While we are the service provider — we, the city of Dallas, are the ones who are operating that with Motorola, who is our prime vendor — it is actually a partnership [with] jurisdictions across the city. We are utilizing radio tower infrastructure from a multitude of different jurisdictions. We’ve largely completed our full rollout to public safety, to police, to fire marshals, we’re most of the way through DPD. This system is a significant improvement in the technology that’s available, to not just our folks in the city, but to the entire region.

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

Zielinski: It’s one of those things where the target is always moving. We’re actually in the midst of refreshing our smart city road map. Our last smart city road map was for a three-year period from 2018 to 2020. And as we look at that prior smart city road map and ask the question: “What did we accomplish? Do we accomplish our goals and objectives? What remains to be accomplished? Has the plan changed?” What’s interesting is that many of the principles in that prior smart city road map still apply, but you also see that there are some significant changes both in terms of the city as well as the technology itself.

As an example, since the implementation of that original road map … we have appointed our first chief data officer, Dr. Brita Andercheck. Her department was created in October of 2020. Interestingly, we had a smart city road map, but we didn’t actually have a chief data officer. We’re looking at [planning] in terms of the new technologies that are in place that have become a little bit more mature, and we have actual use cases as well as strengthening our plan around the role of the chief data officer.

Industry Insider: Does your organization have a strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? What role do you personally play in writing that strategic plan?

Zielinski: The city maintains a set of strategic priorities that I will gladly share. Those are refreshed each year. That looks at what our priorities are in eight strategic areas. What we try to do is we try to track in terms of things like the smart city road map and anything that we’re doing toward longer-term IT planning. We try to ensure that we are aligned to and are working toward those goals and objectives. Not only do I participate in the broader call in and around the refresh of the city’s strategic priorities, I have an opportunity to provide input to that, but then of course within the IT organization itself. As the CIO, I play a primary role in driving that kind of strategic planning for the organization.

Industry Insider: How often do you update your organization’s enterprise catalog?

Zielinski: This is a great question. We just completed and will be baselining, locking down the official authoritative current state of our organization. And what that really documents for every department [is] what are the business processes that are being supported? So on the bottom of this [printout] — it’s about 11 feet long, and it’s only for the Dallas Police Department — but it documents the business processes that are being supported by technology. And then at the top of it is all of the systems and services that are being operated to support that mission. So, what we did is we brought in a consultant who specializes in documenting in a very visual … structured way. Then what we did was we validated it with all of our technologists after the consultant produced the first version. We actually bring in all of our IT teams to review it and to argue about it and to debate whether it’s right or wrong or not. … And the thought is that we will maintain that over time, so we’ll use it in our IT governance for new projects coming on board. … And what we documented is that we have over 800 systems or services that we are operating within the city for use by departments to meet their missions. It’s 864.

Industry Insider: What big initiatives or projects are coming up? What sorts of developing opportunities and RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months? 

Zielinski: We have a series of things that are in flight now and will be going forward. Let me try to give you a few that I can think of. So, one of the largest that’s out there: We’re doing work utilizing [grant] funds to look at building out digital equity infrastructure. This is potentially middle-mile infrastructure as well as last-mile provisioning for those areas in the city where we have unserved or underserved populations. And so we expect that in the next several months, there will be an RFP that goes out onto the street. We have a very large refresh of our core financial services system that we are undertaking. We have just launched a mammoth project for replacing our old, outdated land management and permitting system, and so that contract was approved back in February, our official kickoff is coming up here in the next week or so.

Industry Insider: What is your estimated IT budget?

Zielinski: To that point, our official operating budget, you will see it reflected in the budget documents. It’s $140 million, approximately. While we have $140 million as the listed budget … for Fiscal Year '23 … there’s approximately $60 million of identified or identifiable IT projects that originate in department budgets.

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

Zielinski: I probably get two to three dozen calls and emails every day asking for 30 minutes of my time. If you do the math on that: 24 times 30 minutes, 12 hours per day, that’s all I would do all day long. My preference is that they email me. And I will respond to every single email that I receive from a vendor, but in terms of meeting with vendors, it really has to be something that’s on the road map.

What I don’t like is when a vendor says, “I want to meet with you, now tell us how we can help you.” A vendor should be able to come in and have done their research — we have a lot of information on our city website about the things that are our priorities. … I produce, every single month, a technology accountability report that is posted publicly, and it is sent to the City Council and is posted on our council website.

I love a vendor who comes in and says, “Bill, I see that these are things that you have going on and that you have on your road map for the upcoming years. So let me tell you specifically where we think our company can fit in for what you’re trying to get done.” Otherwise, just the sheer volume of those who come forward is overwhelming. I can’t physically meet with everybody who wants to meet with me. So they’re going to be much better positioned if they come in with a base level of understanding of what’s important to us.

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

Zielinski: I would give the standard answer that everyone else does. You know, more agile and faster. … I love using things like Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) or other cooperative agreements ... because there’s a lot of work that’s been done. I really like to utilize things like TX-RAMP or StateRAMP or FedRAMP. … If I could change something: Everybody tries to use those mechanisms because that makes it so much easier for me to know what I’m getting from a provider.

Industry Insider: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the government technology and SLED sectors?

Zielinski: I actually have about 15 different feeds. … In terms of books that I will pull off the shelf, I tend to these days be really interested in things in the cyber realm, things around ransomware, and you know, unfortunately, it’s like reading books that keep you awake at night. I like to look at relevant kinds of topics [covering] the things we fight against on a daily basis.

Industry Insider: What are your hobbies?

Zielinski: I don’t really have spare time, but I do carve out time for hobbies. I love backpacking. I take two long backpacking trips … 75-plus miles for each trip, twice per year. And I like to go to very remote locations where I have absolutely no connection to the outside world, and I can get no signal on my devices. Because of what I do all day every day, I really, really enjoy completely disconnecting and going on long backpacking trips, where I can’t even if I wanted to, I can’t connect to anything.