Leveraging Technology to Enable Citizen Engagement

Posted by Tim R on June 3, 2021

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With around 450 staff members helping run 20+ asset management systems across 65 lines of business, there’s never a dull moment for King County’s Department of Information Technology. This is especially true while pivoting from a project- to product-based IT delivery environment.

On episode 17 of Unleash IT, André Christ spoke with Stephen Heard, CTO at King County Department of Information Technology (KCIT) to discuss how he and his team are modernizing the 12th largest county in the United States.

They also discussed:

  • Digital transformation following March 2020
  • Changes in consumer expectations and their influence on the public sector
  • Local government architecture
  • Shifting from project- to product-based IT 

“What we're trying to do primarily is synthesize what's happening outside of government in the technology space, implement what we're doing in smart ways that engage end users with the products and services, and create engaging experiences.” — Stephen Heard, CTO, King County

Digital transformation since March 2020

King County is home to breathtaking natural and technological landscapes. In addition to mountainscapes, this is where Amazon and Microsoft are headquartered. Needless to say, Stephen’s citizen base is highly informed and invested in the digital maturity of their public services. This ranges from healthcare, air travel, judiciary systems, transit, and waste and water treatment management: diverse lines of business, all coalescing into one government entity’s purview.

Thankfully, King County’s IT department has always kept pace with its technologically-minded residents. In recent pandemic times, they’ve taken it to an even greater level. A quick look at their transformation roadmap shows you exactly how fast they’re accelerating migrations to drive more resilient and customer-centric public systems.

For instance, King County was one of the first local governments to use Skype — a process which nonetheless lasted two-and-a-half years. In comparison, their current migration from Skype to Microsoft Teams is already 80% complete in just four months.

“Everything has compressed and accelerated in the last 15 months,” Stephen said. “We've just done things that we didn't think were possible in those time frames before COVID.”

Healthcare is an even more staggering example. Where there was no vaccine management system in place, Stephen’s team implemented a process to manage reservations, vaccine administration and follow-ups, and tracking within three or four weeks.

But even beyond acceleration and compression is the public’s expectations for access through smartphones and tables wherever they are and whenever they need it. “That's changing the nature of the IT solutions that we're delivering, as well,” Stephen said.

Delivering services with technology that's at par with the private sector is fundamentally re-shaping the scope of digital transformation for King County. Take payment modernization, for example. Instead of these being limited to debit, credit, or electronic check, King County residents have the option of using PayPal, Apple Pay, or Google Pay.

“What we're trying to do primarily is synthesize what's happening outside of government in the technology space. We’re trying to implement what we're doing in smart ways that engage end users with the products and services and create engaging experiences.”

Changes in consumer expectations

Most government processes are artifacts based on non-digital times — that is, paper-based workflows. It presents a challenge to convert to a digital process, especially with the demand for immediacy that guides most of the public’s expectations.

Immediate feedback

When we click the button, we get an Amazon package within two days. When we pull through a drive-thru, someone hands us a coffee in under five minutes. As such, people don’t want to click on a government site and then wait for two weeks or more.

Wayfinding

Connecting to local government services should be seamless. It rarely looks that way with back-end processes. In some cases, these must adapt to consume digital inputs. Say, if a citizen reports a pothole, it is actually a hugely complex matter to find out whose jurisdiction that issue is.

Scaling

A county may have a hundred different public agencies and hundreds of municipalities, each with its own regulations and interactions with the public. “One of the things that we're beginning now to understand is that we can't really solve that exclusively by ourselves, so we need to engage with partner agencies within our region to provide really cohesive solutions for the public,” Stephen said.

Local government architecture

The challenge of modernizing existing paradigms is probably the top issue facing any digital transformation in local government.

  • Leveraging APIs: It takes hundreds of APIs to make something like the seamless payment modernization example above become actionable.
  • The GIS space: Geographic information is at the heart of nearly every piece of data in local government, from assessment agencies to social justice information.
  • LIDAR: The county wants its own map data and imagery for the GIS and not to rely on free mapping services.

“It's all in the GIS, and it's a super powerful tool, and most of the interaction with that is based on publishing and consuming APIs,” Stephen said.

IT organization setup

As mentioned already, there are around 450 people in Stephen’s department, organized generally by technical verticals (software engineering, data engineering, operations, end user support, etc.). This setup is poised to change given King County’s shift to more fast-changing, iteratively-built digital services.

Like many other guests of Unleash IT, Stephen summarized the change as follows: “We need to begin to shift into a product organization and adopt a product mindset.”

But with about 65 different lines of business within the county, there’s a tremendous amount of demand that’s more or less impossible to satisfy. For the sake of delivering relevant experiences to internal customers, not just the public, Stephen is reconceptualizing the technical verticals into product teams.

“We're 450 out of 15,000 people in the organization, and we recognize that we want to shift the way we work out of projects and into products, but we've got to find a way to bring the rest of the county along in that conversation,” Stephen said.

This involves a funding and management conversation that will affect the whole county. They want to move into products but have to function still as projects, which puts them in a hybrid mode for now.

“We believe technology can be a differentiator for public engagement and experiences,” he said. It’s imperative to keep that at the forefront of any project or product delivery.

“We need to begin to shift into a product organization and adopt a product mindset.” — Stephen Heard, CTO, King County

IT architectures for hybrid mode

It's impossible to find all-in-one solutions for each line of King County’s business. But with 20 separate asset management systems in place, for example, rationalization needs to happen — and efficiently. Stephen sees enterprise architecture (EA) as a key way to identify the top-most technological needs from a business capability standpoint and build a corresponding solution strategy. Stephen’s goal isn’t to use enterprise architecture to force undue standardization requirements on his business, but rather to identify flexibility and commonality wherever possible.

Here are two goals that Stephen has for enterprise architecture: (1) Connecting the entirety of IT to unify it for the same end goal; (2) mapping business capability in the new product spaces. To do that, it will take getting a handle on the approximately 1,000 applications that King County's IT is responsible for supporting — many of which are duplicative and respond to the same core business capability.

“This is one of the interesting problems that enterprise architecture can help us solve,” Stephen said. “It's understanding from a business capability standpoint what the needs are and then helping us to align and build a solution strategy to meet those needs.” — Stephen Heard, CTO, King County

 

 
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