Leveraging Technology to Enhance City-Business in the Post-Pandemic...

Leveraging Technology to Enhance City-Business in the Post-Pandemic World

Muslim Gadiwalla, Chief Information Officer, The City of St. Petersburg

Leveraging Technology to Enhance City-Business in the Post-Pandemic World Muslim Gadiwalla, Chief Information Officer, The City of St. Petersburg

Muslim Gadiwalla is an experienced Chief Information Officer with a demonstrated history of working in local government. Skilled in Government, Enterprise Architecture, Business Process Improvement, Requirements Analysis, and Analytics, he is currently serving as the Chief Information Officer at the City of St. Petersburg and has been serving in this position for 23 years.

In an interaction with the Government CIO Outlook magazine, Muslim Gadiwalla focuses on a couple of technological advancements that they have adopted to enhance city business operations post COVID-19.

What are some of the significant challenges and trends that have been impacting the government sector due to the pandemic? 

I have served the city for more than 23 years now. In that timeframe, I've witnessed technology evolve to what it is today.  For us, COVID-19 drove change like never before.  We were able to pivot and adapt to a lot of the challenges posed by the pandemic because of the advanced technology systems we implemented prior to the pandemic.

The city has been investing in virtual desktop infrastructure for over fifteen years, and many city employees use virtual machines in lieu of desktop computers.  Prior to COVID-19, most employees used virtual machines within their offices while connected to the city infrastructure. However, a small group of city employees were also authorized to access them externally.  So, the infrastructure was already set up to allow employees to securely access city systems from outside the city network. That was very beneficial at the onset of COVID-19 when most employees were asked to work from home since all we had to ensure was that the employee had the resources at home to access their virtual machine.  Employees who did not have technology available could take their work equipment home and use it.  As a result, we were able to provision 900+ employees with access to the entire infrastructure and services that they had when they were in the office. That was one of the aspects that helped us get a head start on letting employees function remotely.

“IT is a service and a person with a service-oriented mindset will always be more successful in IT leadership than someone whose only desire is to be a tech guru.”

Another factor that aided us was our telephone systems, which we had already migrated to voice over IP (internet protocol) as part of our continuing effort to keep our technology current. Using this technology when customer support representatives were required to work from home, we extended our telephone system to their homes.  As a result, our customers were able to continue to dial the same telephone number, that they have always used, and our customer support staff was able to answer the calls from home and provide the same level of service as they did from within the office.

One of the difficulties that all local governments faced has been switching from in-person public meetings to fully virtual and more recently hybrid meetings where some participants are physically present and others attend virtually.  At the start of the pandemic, we switched from in-person to Zoom Webinars for all our public meetings.  Most City of St. Petersburg public meetings are broadcast live on our City webpage as well as on the Granicus service.  In addition to that we send our signal to two of the cable providers, in the city, who then broadcast it live over their systems.  Getting all the different audio-video streams coordinated and consolidated into a single stream to deliver to the various entities was an initial technical challenge that we quickly resolved.  The bigger challenge however was the issue with public participation in these meetings.  Florida law requires that all public meetings allow any member of the public wishing to speak be allowed an opportunity.  In a physical meeting if an individual gets rowdy, abusive, or otherwise behaves in an inappropriate fashion there is always security present in the room to escort them out of the meeting.  Also, when people are physically present the security personnel can observe them and see if there are any obvious indicators of a problem.  In a virtual meeting however, all participants can be anonymous and, it is difficult to predict how someone is going to behave or what they are going to say.  In one of our meetings, early last year, we did have a concerted effort by a group of people who when each was allowed to speak used foul language, racial slurs and were very disruptive.  As a result of this experience, we had to assign a staff person whose only job is to monitor every zoom meeting that has public participation and immediately drop anyone who speaks inappropriately.

Could you elaborate on some interesting and impactful projects/initiatives that you're currently overseeing?

The City of St. Petersburg continuously evaluates our software and hardware platforms to ensure that our staff have the tools to provide service securely and effectively to our citizens.  Every time a system needs a major upgrade, we review the new version of the system as well as what other vendors may have in that space and decide whether to upgrade the system or replace it with newer technology. 

The city has just started an enterprise-wide project to upgrade our on-prem Time and Attendance system (Kronos/Telestaff) running on an IBM iSeries platform to the current UKG Dimensions/Telestaff cloud system.  Within this project scope we will be implementing several technology and process changes including automatic scheduling, leave and absence management, etc.  This project affects all city employees since they all interact with the Time and Attendance system.

We have also selected Oracle’s Work and Asset Cloud Service (WACS) system to replace the city’s on-prem Oracle Utilities Work and Asset Management (WAM) system.  The new asset management system in addition to being used by our Water Resources and Stormwater departments will also be used by our Recreation and Fire departments to manage and monitor their assets.

We are also in the final phases of selecting a Capital Improvements Project Management system to help our Engineering department manage a 500 million dollar plus portfolio of capital construction projects.

What does the future look like for the Government Sector?

The private sector has been effectively using telecommuting for a long while.  In most governments, just like with the city, telecommuting was restricted primarily to management and select professional employees and that too very sporadically.  The pandemic turned this paradigm upside down and proved that with the current state of technology most government office workers, who did not have any direct face-to-face public contact responsibilities, could effectively work from home.  If this trend continues, post-pandemic, we should see a dramatic change in the way local governments operate.  The need for large local government facilities housing hundreds of employees, with associated parking needs, will gradually be phased out and replaced with much smaller public service facilities that can be spread out throughout cities. 

With the pandemic local government public meetings were forced to move to online platforms allowing a much easier level of public participation.  Now citizens interested in commenting on a particular item can continue to work while monitoring the meeting online and participate when their item is being discussed as opposed to being forced to sit in a meeting room throughout the meeting waiting for their opportunity to speak.

One of the major issues that most government entities are facing is that many of their senior workforce is eligible to retire.  Recruitment within government, especially, in the technology area, has always been challenging due to salary disparity between the public and private sectors.   As more staff retires, governments are going to be challenged to replace those staff members and may have to look to outsourcing or fill those slots with consultants.  Securing government systems is and will continue to be a major issue for government IT staff. In the last few years, we have witnessed a trend of hackers targeting governmental systems through ransomware attacks, exfiltration of customer and employee data, attempting to hijack payroll and financial systems to reroute payments and targeted phishing attacks.  As these attacks get more sophisticated local government will have to either rely on the private sector or some form of conglomeration of public pooled resources either at the state or federal level to defend ourselves against such intrusions.

What would be the single piece of advice that you could impart to a fellow or aspiring professional in your field looking to embark on a similar venture?

Working for a local government, in Information Technology, is a challenging and very fulfilling career choice.  While most private sector companies have a singular focus (Utilities, Consulting, Manufacturing, Construction etc) a local government is multi-functional.  Most medium to large local governments are responsible for Public Safety and their Police and Fire departments operate on a 24x7 basis and are very technology dependent.  Local governments provide Water, Stormwater and Sanitation services which require systems to monitor, manage and bill large numbers of customers like a commercial utility company.  They also manage the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, facilities, and other infrastructure and need systems like any commercial construction company.  They also have attorneys on staff who require case management and document management systems just as a private law firm would.  They have a large fleet of rolling assets such as police cars, fire trucks, inspection and repair vehicles, and even small equipment like lawn mowers all of which require asset management, fuel tracking and management, and GPS tracking systems.  Governments also have a large number of employees and so require sophisticated human resources, payroll, finance and purchasing systems.  Being in IT Leadership, in a local government, requires you to understand all these various lines of business and their unique needs to ensure that the technology infrastructure and systems can adequately meet them.  To be in IT leadership positions requires you to constantly be in a learning mode, not just about technology but all the varied lines of business you support and the innovations and changes happening within those businesses.  This is extremely challenging but at the end of the day there is a very high level of personal satisfaction at having given back to the community and as you drive around your community you can see the facilities, projects, and infrastructure that you were partially responsible for accomplishing.

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