CTO Download: Transforming Antiquated IT in Texas

Chris Chiancone is transforming the Plano, Texas, IT department into a modern service-oriented agency that empowers decision-making and improves services.

Chris Chiancone leads the technology services department for the city of Plano, Texas, which is home to more than 275,000 people and was named Money Magazine’s 2016 third-best place to live. As Chief Information Officer, he is harnessing his twenty plus years of experience in delivering advanced solutions such as cloud migration, remote data management and hyper converged infrastructure systems.

Chiancone leads with a philosophy of service excellence collaboration, innovation and transparency. His team in Plano is currently focused on decreasing costs and increasing productivity while updating infrastructure and business processes. His practical advice for taking the reins of government technology to usher in modern approaches to service delivery in the following EfficientGov Q&A can help IT practitioners from small towns to large cities.

You became CIO for Plano, Texas in May 2016, what specific technology initiatives have you focused on in those 7 months?

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Chiancone: Change the perception of our department to our internal and external customers is my primary focus. I was overwhelmed how many departments settled for antiquated and outdated technologies, because of how the IT department operated in the past. We are in the process of transforming outdated and antiquated connectivity and infrastructure technology to new technologies, leveraging modern and scalable technologies such as hyper-convergence and service-orientated architectures.

We are challenging our talent and rewriting our culture, working in initiatives that challenge our staff to decrease costs, increase productivity, be more innovative. We invest heavily in the development of talent and expect certification and mastery of areas we invest in. All in all, our major goal is to become the best municipal technology department in the country, a model in which many will want to follow.

From your perspective, what is the IT Department’s role in government?

Chiancone: The role of technology in government has evolved significantly over time. For years, IT Departments had a more dictatorial approach to technology evolution, telling departments how technology would be utilized throughout the organization, rather than partnering with internal and external customers and developing meaningful and innovative solutions to their business problems. IT Departments need to shift in their approach in this day of consumerization approaches and shadow services.

In my opinion, IT’s role in government is to treat everyone who engages with the government as their customers.

With IT’s role in government evolving, how do you develop and encourage a culture of collaboration and transparency?

Chiancone: A metaphor I like to use to explain IT services, is it is a lot like an iceberg – in that 90 percent of an iceberg can’t be seen, and most of it exists underneath the water. Ninety percent of IT work cannot be seen or understood by customers, but still that 90 percent of work requires a great deal of change and attention. There are great challenges in helping people try to understand that 90 percent.

When I join an organization, I like to conduct one-hour meetings with every director. I like to set expectations upfront; I am very transparent during these one-on-one meetings and explain an estimated time line, pointing out that within the first year they will wonder what the heck I am doing, but, within two to three years they will start seeing a large degree of change and by the fourth or fifth year, they will be amazed.

I also meet with every single employee that works in my department for a 30-60 minute one-on-one discussion during the first year, with the majority in the first 90 to 120 days. These sessions provide me with a unique perspective on the organization from the employee point-of-view and allows me to directly express and explain my vision and objective of transforming the culture to each of my employees.

I want my employees to know it is okay to think differently, and are empowered to discover solutions through managed mistakes. Taking calculated risks and testing norms are necessary steps in discovering new efficiencies to old and outdated processes. I also take very seriously that governments are ultimately responsible for the use of tax-payer dollars and I challenge my employees to see departments and constituents as our customers.

Finally, I strongly believe that IT should have strong relationships with procurement and [human resources]. For IT to transform into a service delivery-focused department they will need to work in tandem with those two departments specifically.

What are the risks municipalities face if their IT departments are unable to evolve?

Chiancone: IT departments, along with organizations, simply don’t have a choice but to evolve. Take a moment to consider what the new generation (Z) of citizens are doing on a personal and private sector level when it comes to utilizing technology. They are beginning to have the same expectations of their governments.

Politicians and other civic leaders will echo these expectations, and if IT departments are unable to adapt, then change will be demanded by finding a solution elsewhere, i.e., outsourcing. Government will be required to adapt and consume the new generation’s way of doing things, we will not be in a position to tell them how we provide services - they will tell us how they want to use our services.

As a technology leader working within the public sector what specific technologies interest you?

Chiancone: Data management and information aggregation and exchange is more important than ever in both the public and private sectors. People require good data to make intelligent and well-informed decisions, essentially IT needs to help make data informational. I believe that the process of making data informational, is and will continue to be, America’s next oil boom. Billions of dollars around the world are being invested in to people, processes and technologies that will help us make more informed decisions and make provide more relevant and realistic capital investments through big data and machine learning.

Speaking to a new leader of technology taking on a transformational role in government, what advice would you offer?

Chiancone: Buckle up, change is hard and it is a struggle for many. In my case, I have strong senior level support and it is the only way my team and I could be effective; without this support, I probably would not take on a transformational role. Developing a game plan will take you some time, especially if the transformation is all encompassing (network, telecom, applications and data). Some high-level lessons learned are:

  • Talent is everything! Acquiring and developing talent delivers the highest amount of ROI and helps staff riding on the fence to be part of the solution rather than dwelling on the past.
  • Don’t give into the temptation of delivering long-term strategic plans too soon; by doing so, you give yourself time to completely understand the environment and your plan will be more consistent and will change less.
  • Stay the course and don’t give up. Although at times, it may be tempting to tap out, no change is accomplished by giving in and quitting.
  • Trust your team’s recommendations, but verify all things. Ultimately, anything that occurs within your department is your responsibility regardless if you know about it or not.
  • Finally, realize that some amazing things have come from mistakes. Taking an educated risk, managed to evoke the change you are striving for, may be an appropriate course of action.

EfficientGov’s CTO Download column highlights the work of civic IT leaders that achieve notable, forward-thinking technical solutions that change the game for their local governments. Who they are, what they believe and their approaches advance cities governing under limited resources.

Civic technology leaders who would like to participate in CTO Download should email editor@efficientgov.com.

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