Q&A: Louis Shallal

Louis Shallal, chief information officer for the City of Hamilton, is direct in outlining his IT vision for his community.

“I want to change Hamilton from Steel Town to Tech Town,” he says.

Shallal, CIO for a little more than two years, first became involved in IT while working as an urban transportation planner with the Province of Ontario more than 30 years ago.

“I was doing simulation and forecasting using software that would enable me to do projections of traffic in the future,” he recalled. “Even though I wasn’t too keen to know too much about the technology the education itself was interesting.”

Shallal said he “kept in touch” with technology right from the beginning of his career, but it wasn’t until he became director of geomatics in the former Region of Ottawa-Carleton in 1995 that he was surrounded by it. In 1998, he became executive director of IT with the region before spending a year working on the amalgamated City of Ottawa’s Web portal.

“Then I came to Hamilton to run the IT shop and maintain the strategic direction for the City of Hamilton,” he said.

And Shallal’s vision for Hamilton is extensive. The city has undertaken five major IT projects which include the creation of a community Web portal, a human resources employee self service reference guide, a GIS system, a government-wide information technology strategy and a move to IP telephony.

In a recent interview with Blair McQuillan, assistant editor of CIO Governments’ Review, Shallal discussed these projects, the challenges he faces and the aspects of his job he most enjoys. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Q. I know you’re very proud of the five main IT initiatives Hamilton has taken on recently. Why are these initiatives important for the city as you move forward?

A. The main reason is because they show clearly that we are putting together projects and deliverables that are part of a long term vision that we have for the role IT will play in our corporation.

The long term vision…involves significant participation from all of the organizations. This was not a strategy developed by IT people. It was a strategy developed across the corporation. We broke down the strategy into four parts – hard services, human services, e-government and IT infrastructure – to show that technology has to play a role in serving the needs of all the operating departments.

I felt very strongly that the strategy had to be developed by us and not by bringing in a consultant to tell us what the best practices have been in other places. We developed with the strategy a very clear three-year program, and the projects we have been showcasing at various government events lately are all part of that program development.

Q. The employee self-service reference guide – known as My HR Info – is intriguing. I wonder if governments are now so busy worrying about citizen services that they forget to turn the technology back towards their own employees.

A. Most governments look inward because it is easier to sell the technology to their employees. E-government has emerged in the last five years because of the Internet. It has allowed municipal organizations to look outward through portals as the method of communicating with citizens. But up until about five years ago, most of the effort regarding the use of technology has been internally focused.

Q. When it comes to launching and implementing the projects like the ones Hamilton has undertaken, who needs to take the lead to get things done?

A. I don’t want to blow my own horn, but the CIO is the key in these kinds of projects. You have to start with a vision, develop a strategy, develop a work plan and define your priorities. Somebody has to be there to point out the direction and manage these projects. The leader’s role is to ensure that the resources are there to move in a particular direction.

To be blunt, I hardly did anything more than that. Everything else was done by my people. I also don’t want to undermine the necessity to have a clear idea of where you want to go and what can be accomplished within the time that’s available in that work plan.

Q. Could you outline some of the challenges you face as a CIO?

A. The first is the financial limitations that affect all municipalities. I’m hoping that Paul Martin and Dalton McGuinty are going to look in favour of allowing municipalities to have access to some other revenue sources. With all of the downloading that happened, municipalities are facing some tough financial situations.

The other challenge we’re facing is ensuring that we have a proper integration of our technology with our business; a closer and more aligned approach for technology to meet the business needs of our departments. That is our greatest challenge.

Also, because we are an amalgamated municipality from what was previously six regional governments, we inherited a number of legacy systems and we need to ensure there is a proper integration of these systems.

The last challenge is to ensure that IT becomes an opportunity centre as opposed to a cost centre for the municipality. We have to demonstrate value as an opportunity centre.

Q. What are the e-government challenges that are unique to the City of Hamilton?

A. One area that is quite different in Hamilton is that we have a lot multicultural diversity here. One of the things we have to address in our portal development is the fact that we are rich and blessed with various ethnic groups.

The base of Hamilton is an industrialized base and so we have to ensure that we can leverage the portal to make sure we can meet the characteristics and culture of our community. We have to make sure that our e-government services reflect that.

Also, because we might have a reduced percentage of penetration in terms of Internet use in our community – that means we will have to supplement our e-government services by using as many channels of service delivery as possible. That means greater use of our kiosks, greater use of our libraries, greater use of community centres and greater use of the volunteer community who deal with these multicultural groups. We may need to approach them to ensure that they participate in our vision.

Because we are an amalgamated city we have both an urban and a rural component. One of our challenges is how to reach our rural residents and make them party to the happenings in our city through the portal. There we have two challenges. One is network connectivity… both wireless and through the public network. The other challenge is the need to be sure the content that’s relative to our rural residents is expanded on through work with our community groups.

Q. It’s obvious you’re very enthusiastic about your job and your accomplishments – but what specifically is it about your occupation that gets you out of bed in the morning?

A. Two years ago when I came to Hamilton I knew it was almost like virgin territory. We didn’t register much on the radar scale as a technology savvy organization. What got me excited was that I wanted to put Hamilton on the map.

I want to be able to make progress and a significant move towards diversifying our economy. I want to make people recognize there’s an information technology and communications sector that is growing in Hamilton.

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