State and Local Panelists Discuss Collaboration, IT Leadership at Nextgov Prime 2014

Asheville, North Carolina, Chief Innovation Officer Jonathan Feldman Asheville, North Carolina, Chief Innovation Officer Jonathan Feldman Nextgov Prime 2014

WASHINGTON — How well is the federal government collaborating with partners on the state and local level? What’s necessary for stakeholders at any level of government to succeed with information technology, project management, public services and cross-sector collaboration?

Nextgov Prime 2014’s state and local breakfast panelists shared advice, best practices and their thoughts on public-sector technology leadership Tuesday morning at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

Mitch Herckis, director of government affairs for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, moderated the panel discussion featuring Adrian Gardner, chief information officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Jonathan Feldman, chief innovation officer for the city of Asheville, North Carolina; and Rob Mancini, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia government.

Feldman said it’s no secret that collaboration is critically important for state and local IT stakeholders, but that it can be difficult to work outside their immediate spheres of influence. Collaboration is “important because nobody has enough resources, nobody has enough budget resources,” he said. “The [IT] needs are escalating and we all work in a little silo. It’s a terrible idea.”

Offering his outside-the-Beltway perspective, Feldman said that at times, local jurisdictions often view the federal government as a looming Dad-like figure, who can "write a big check.”

FEMA Chief Information Officer Adrian Gardner

Gardner said that FEMA, with its role to assist local communities manage and respond to disasters and emergency situations, understands the need to collaborate with local partners. “We recognize that we’ve had challenges in that area,” he said, saying that local residents can sometimes fall “under the weight of the [federal] organizations that are there to help.”

Feldman said the ability for state and local governments to collaborate across jurisdictional lines and be innovative varies across the landscape but that “there are some bright spots” and the “way to make change is to identify bright spots” and work to build upon those initial successes.

Local jurisdictions have no choice but to work with other public-sector partners, Feldman said.

“We collaborate with the state all the time,” he said, citing North Carolina’s VIPER public safety emergency-response communications system as a good example of collaboration between state and local jurisdictions. “There are some really neat things happening at the state level.”

From the federal perspective, Gardner said that among states, there are “haves and have nots” when you look at their information infrastructure, planning and emergency-response capabilities and it’s the federal government's role to assist everyone.

“We share that mindset” to collaborate, he said.

The panel from left, Mitch Herckis of NASCIO, Jonathan Feldman of Asheville, N.C., Adrian Gardner of FEMA and Rob Mancini of the D.C. government.

Mancini said that the District of Columbia government is accustomed to working with other jurisdictions because of not just the large federal presence in the nation’s capital, but also the proximity to various nearby county-level, city-level and state-level government agencies in Maryland and Virginia. It can create a complex jurisdictional puzzle, Mancini said, especially in emergency response because of the multiple law enforcement agencies in the National Capital Region.

Mancini pointed out that local jurisdictions that have actively invested in IT infrastructure can “dream some big dreams,” and create some substantial projects and IT systems, like ones needed for effective emergency response. “You can do a lot with high-speed fiber,” he said.

Gardner noted that federal agencies, especially an agency like FEMA, want to foster collaboration and create and good environment for effective communication.

“There are some ways we could better collaborate the way we respond to emergencies in a timely way when it’s truly needed,” he said. It’s necessary to have “a common-operating picture” in emergency planning and response across the federal, state and local levels.

For federal agencies working with state and local partners, there needs to be more of a federal “engagement role versus a control role.”

Feldman said that government isn’t always the answer and that public-sector technologists on the state and local level shouldn’t be afraid of the private sector.

The same goes for colleagues in other government agencies. Sometimes as a state or local government agency leader, you just have to let go and be willing to hand off responsibility to other partners, Feldman said.

“Being able to let go of some span of control is about trust,” he said. “You can’t establish trust with folks without spending time with them.”  

But in order be able to hand off that “span of control,” public-sector technologists first have to demonstrate that their agency is able manage their own operations effectively, which requires effective planning, not only to consider long-range needs but changing short-term priorities, Feldman said. He recommended that local IT agencies shift to 90-day planning periods to be better able to respond to shifting priorities.

“If you don’t have your act together, nobody will trust you to do cool stuff,” Feldman said.

Some answers can’t be found in public sector, he said, and state and local government practitioners can’t be afraid of that.

“In terms of private sector, you can’t look at vendors as a pit of vipers,” he said, adding that you can’t imagine those in the private sector as an evil force.

“They aren’t going to the pits of hell” when they leave the office at the end of the day, he said. “In government technology . . we can put our heads in the sand.” Feldman noted that it can be easy to not return phone calls or emails, but that can be counterproductive and lead to lost opportunities.

When you boil it all down, being collaborative and effectively working with federal, state and local partners requires leadership, according to Mancini. “The answer is leadership. . . . We’re leaders, we’re expected to lead. We have a role to play within our government. You are expected to lead as a technologist.”

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