The CIO and the city: Our biggest roundtable ever

They make decisions about people and process and technology that can be critical to a well-run city, but most municipal CIOs have a budget that represents just two per cent of what their organization spends as a whole. And that’s just one of the challenges they face.

In May, the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA/ASIM) held the first of what is intended to become an annual CIO summit of IT decision makers across the country in Niagara on-the-Lake. Over a day-long series of talks – which I had the honour of facilitating – we looked everything from the evolution of shared services and competing for resources to enterprise architecture and collaboration. One of the most dynamic parts of the dialogue, however, focused on what being a CIO at a municipality really means: the unique problems as well as the unique opportunities to contribute to strategy and improve the lives of citizens.

Given the timing of this event, I decided that, rather than hosting our traditional CIO Roundtable, I would record a part of this event and treat it, in effect, as the biggest CIO roundtable we’ve ever conducted, with about 40 people in the room overall.

What follows is a highly edited and condensed transcript. I’ve tried to include as many voices as possible, and capture some of the community-building spirit that seemed to spark at this meeting. Though there may not have been any hard conclusions, what came out were great snapshots of the Canadian local government IT leader in 2011. And when we wrapped up, one thing was clear: after eight hours of exchanging ideas, this was a conversation that’s only just begun.


CIO Canada: How would you define yourselves as leaders in the organization today – functional, transformational or strategic?

Kevin Peacock, CIO, City of Saskatoon: I always find it interesting that we try to put ourselves in boxes – functional, transformational, or even business strategy. I feel that most of the people at this table play all these roles at any given time based on the customer you’re dealing with, rather than seeing yourself as a particular leader. You’ll hear people ask about our staff’s expertise around business. Well, what have our staff done all of their careers but implement business solutions? They understand business process improvement, they also understand the systems that they have to support and run. I’d like to change this from a boxed environment to say, “We all are this,” and suggest that it’s whatever our organizations allow us to play as the prime role that defines where we sit. Most municipalities see us as a cost centre, a black hole, they don’t understand us and they don’t want to see us have a seat at the rest of the table with senior administration. What we aspire to in Saskatoon is to see IT viewed as a telephone. When you pick up a phone you get dial tone, you make calls. We want people to walk up to their desk and have everything they need to do their job in an effective and productive manner.

Arlene McDonald, Director of IT, Region of Waterloo: I’ve been in my position only since January, so it’s been focused on figuring out where we are as an organization, what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. The business hasn’t necessarily accepted us to the table yet. I think a part of that is the nature of the way we do business. I find our organization is so reactive and responses to whims or needs or requests of the business. We haven’t necessarily played that strategic partner role. When the business goes out and recognizes they have a challenge or a problem or an opportunity, they go and figure out what the solution is and come to us and say, “This is what the solution is. Can you go and put it in place for me?” So when your resources are focused on that operational mode, it’s very difficult to show the value of IT, because you’re always in that position of being reactive. I think as you move forward putting things like governance in place and having the business start helping you identify what gets approved and what doesn’t get approved helps give you an opportunity to say “No,” a consistent way for project requests to come in, and helpimg the business understand you can bring in technology in such a way that it provides value. That’s where our focus has been.




Ralph Blauel, Director of IT, Halton Region: I wanted to bring into this discussion the notion that our masters give us permission to move along the continuum if we get the base stuff done properly. If you do utility well – in my experience anyway – you get to move into the more transformational projects and initiatives. For Halton I think we’re probably in that area right now. We’ve defined our intake process, our evaluation process. People bitch and complain about it, but it’s been in place now for five or six years, but I think we still need to move along the continuum to get into strategy.

Michel Archambault, CIO, City of Montreal: We have kind of a special experiment in Montreal. I was nominated as the city CIO under very peculiar circumstances. I had many experiences in IT, but I’m not an IT person. We went into an extreme transformation of the IT business. Less consultants, more municipal expertise, project management and more architecture. And overall better planning. Now the IT function is directly connected to the general management is operating at the top management of the city and I am directly linked to the city council and the main counsellor, which is in charge of the executive committee. When I arrived I told my main clients and partners, “I’m not there to decide in your place, but I’m there to plan with you and give you some tools to think about your needs and your future. I even created a strategic committee, where the main clients and main decision-makers of the organization are receiving every project and can weigh in on it. With this mindset we were able to reintroduce projects like radio-communication, which is a $200 million initiative. This system is very crucial. The other ingredients since the project started in 2009 is not only police, which was the original client, but Public Works, ambulance, transportation and the fire department. We had partnered with the provincial government for the ambulances, so we made a project with many more clients. We did this with strategic committee, where those people were able to bring their needs to the CFO to say, “Okay, yes, we have $200 million somewhere.” It’s an extreme transformation and our issues are still better planning to bring our clients a change management process. My role as a CIO is provoke this. Maybe it’s my own problem but I can’t take someone by the tie and tell them, “Hey, we are going this way.”

Jean-Pierre Fortin, Planification et architecture City of Montreal: Michel is not an IT guy. He comes from city planning. He’s an urbanist. And I think in our case it was necessary it should not be an IT guy. Because we were in such a mess, the IT shop had lost all its credibility. Even though we were a lot of good people – I think I’m one of them – the management had lost confidence. So they just chose somebody who knows what a city has to do, how it works, and he was placed in our shop as a boss. And it works very well, because he fills a gap that was not well occupied before. If CIOs don’t perform their role up to the standards and expectations, they’re going to be replaced with better planners, and better strategists.

Louis Shallal, CIO, Regional Municipality of York, Ont: In three municipalities, whenever I moved from one of them to another, the most important thing I thought I could contribute as a CIO is an IT strategy. Right? Well, I’ll tell you, the final awakening happened in the last couple of years. All of a sudden it appeared to me, clearly, that CIOs should not be developing IT strategies. Now that may sound like blasphemy from a guy who has spent most of his life doing that. But you should develop business strategy, never an IT strategy.

CIO Canada: What are the projects that are helping you demonstrate your transformational or strategic capabilities?

Dave Wallace, CIO, City of Toronto: I think it’s very important to recognize, as Louis said, it’s not IT strategy that’s going to drive change, it’s a business strategy. I think the general openness of government is a big one. The other one is putting strategic technology in place. We’re putting in smart meters across the city that are going to save millions of dollars per year, working with an outsourced data gatherer at the end who’s a meter expert, but we’re doing all the back-end integration. So it’s a partnership, and it was interesting that the way they were going to roll it out was from a very traditional, proprietary perspective. We introduced through enterprise architecture, a much more open approach, much more fitting to standards, and that allowed us to hook up to our systems and create an effective repository much better than ever would have happened through their original approach. It actually changed the direction of the project and we’re moving ahead much faster in a better way. The same thing happened with 311, where they were going to do point-to-point connections with every back-end system, and again, we put an integration architecture piece in. What it means is IT can be an advisor and assist and provide the tools, but then needs to work with the business to help them with their business requirements and business architecture as catalysts to promoting the change. We need to take hold of those opportunities and be that business-IT partner, not that IT-business partner.

Christine Swenor, Director, Information Technology Services, City of Burlington, Ont.: We just had municipal elections last year, so there are a number of new members of our municipal council – about half of our council changed, including a new mayor. So the focus this fiscal shows a new way of thinking and there’s a new focus on citizen engagement, more so than there has been, and I think there’s a role there for municipal IT. One of the things which has happened on the fiscal end is that there will be no increase in staff complement for the next four years. We know that the reality of the situation is there is going to need to be staff added in the next four years, but we can’t do that unless we can find reduction in staff elsewhere. Immediately, the thought comes to my mind that technology is going to have to play a role to achieve this. I think we’re in a unique position in terms of a window of opportunity. I wouldn’t suggest that on the continuum we’re anywhere near business strategy, but this is where we’re going to have to be in order to help the organization.


Kevin Peacock: I’d be interested to see how you can look at IT as the place where you’re going to reduce staff in the organization. I cast my mind back to the 37 years I’ve been in IT, and one of the first things we used to do when we automated a business was get rid of staff. And word soon got out through the organization, “When IT arrives, run like Hell.” Don’t share anything, don’t help improve anything, because you’re going to cost us our jobs.” And now I hear that in Burlington that you’re going back to that old model.
Christine Swenor: I wouldn’t refer to it as the old model. I think it will require a team effort right across the organization. It’s not IT driving the implementation of technology. It’s about how can we help achieve what the organization needs to achieve, and at the same time how can we address our organizational structure? So it’s not about reducing staff, it’s accommodate the growth we need to accommodate. It won’t be easy.

Helen McClaren, Director of IT, Municipality of Chatham-Kent: We’re between the functional and the transformational, I believe. In the last year and a half we’ve been able to show business value and as everyone is having issues with hiring new staff, we’ve been able to have people in the business people value IT to the extent that when there are vacancies, people are actually giving up their vacancy budget dollars to add more IT staff. We’ve had three staff added through that process.

Maurice Gallant, CIO, City of Fredericton: We like to either think or pretend that we punch above our weight class. That poses a little bit of a challenge. In my own experience, I started out as we probably all did managing a traditional IT shop. We did the utility thing pretty good. I think the change came when we realized that there were other efforts going on in the organization that were disconnected. We had a quality management office, a project management office, and an organizational effectiveness initiative, if you like. And all of those people were pulling in different directions. We decided to consolidate that and that’s when we created the position of the CIO. The reason I say that is, I think when the organization said, “All right, we need a CIO,” I think they were saying, “We need IT leadership not to be about IT.” Maybe what I’m putting out there is that we need to step out of IT in order to do that properly.

Michel Archambault: What I saw when I got the job, and I expressed this on the political level, is that now IT is everywhere. We have 3,000 different services we give to the population in the city of Montreal, and IT is in every process. We have to nourish it and do something with it. But sometimes as an outsider, I think we have too much IT. Once I asked one of our employees, “So we have 500 system applications running. Can you tell me which ones are strategic and which ones are strictly operational?” This guy is a genius, but he said he could not tell me. He said it was too complicated. He said he needed a system to do this. I said he just needed a paper and a pencil, and to classify it. So I think sometimes we have too much IT. Right now when we are working we have attention deficits because we are talking, reading and we cannot concentrate. Saying this kind of thing for many years is what brought me into this job.

Roy Wiseman, CIO, Region of Peel: As many of you know, about three years ago we split the IT director from the CIO role and Adam (Hughes) was hired to run the IT division and I think many of you looked at that and wondered, “What’s going on over there?” And part of it is a retirement/transition type of plan but when we took the options to our executive management teams, one of the options was to recombine those two roles. And given the times of fiscal restraint, that’s where I thought they would end up. And they made a decision to say they are going to maintain that separation. And if you’re wondering what that’s all about, I think they’ve come to a realization that – and we’re not using these words today, but – there is a CTO role. There is a “keep the lights on” role. And it is a full-time job. And it’s really hard to do that and to also be the transformational leader. You get sucked into keeping the lights on 100 per cent of the time. And what they said effectively is if we want our IT leader or CIO to play a broader role, we probably need to maintain this separation. It reflects how they’re thinking about it. What we now have to define is what is that broader role and how much authority will they give that CIO to play that broader role, and I would say, agreeing with what Michel said earlier, what they’re not looking for in the CIO role is the technology leader. They’re not looking for the CTO to play that job. It may not go to someone who has an IT background.


CIO Canada: That’s a good transition to asking how you see IT positioned in the municipal organization? Is it a cost centre? An opportunity centre? How is that effecting your ability to capitalize on opportunities to be a leader?

Rhonda Bunn, CIO, City of Kitchener: The way that the City of Kitchener is positioned is that they put my role on the CLT (corporate leadership team). And we’re positioned as good in that keep-the-lights-on area, but where they want to see us is sitting at the table for CLT discussion, sitting at the table for all the strategic decisions for the plan for the city, from a, “How do we service the customer?” perspective. I think the city is helping in this realignment move towards being a partner, but it’s getting the rest of the organization on board with that. I think where we’re positioned right now is really good support. We have opportunities, though, to go in and show them what we can do on the prioritization and portfolio management piece.

Scott Clark, Assistant Director Information Technology, City of Victoria: I think a lot of us report through Finance, and that’s almost an anchor. The only people in the organization that I think would be deemed more a utility than IT is Finance. The minute you belt us to them, it’s almost guilt by association that we’re a utility, and we’re a cost centre, because we’re under Finance. It’s great to have access to the cookie jar – you’ve got the best access in the world to get the money when you need it – but I think the cost for getting to that just doesn’t work out. And I think Corporate Services in general, in most cities, when you talk about the business, and you talk about Corporate Services, all of Corporate Services is deemed to be non-business.

Per Kristensen, Director, Information Technology, City of Nanaimo, B.C.: Along the lines of Finance, we keep talking about elevating ourselves into more of the senior office and getting that perspective. What I’ve noticed over the years is it’s often Finance that actually drives strategy. When somebody comes to council and they ask a question and they want to do something, council collectively turns to the Finance guy and asks, “Can we afford it?” It’s not the question of can we do something, it’s how much money do we have first? And the operational staff has the same problem we have in that they’re not recognized for the talent that they bring to the table. I think we really have a problem and Scott’s hit it on the head, that municipalities are still driven by the Finance side rather than the opportunity side. It’s not a question of do we want to build a car, it’s how much money do we have, and based on that we will buy a car.

Kevin Peacock: At Saskatoon, we also report through Corporate Services, and anytime I get to meet with the all the other senior administration is through the IT Leadership Committee. It’s called IT, it doesn’t say “business,” and all they’re interested in is all the speeds and feeds and how much storage you’ve got and the licensing. I think that’s where the disconnect comes. We don’t have a seat at that table where they’re talking about the business issues facing the municipality. Unless that mindset changes we’re never going to be seen as a strategic partner, someone who’s got a vision for the future and how IT can enable it.

Chris Moore, CIO, City of Edmonton: This is our 60th year of technology. We started with a billing system for Edmonton Light and Power in 1951. IT started out in Finance, because it was billing-related, but in the 1960s it became a department, the Computing Resources Department, and was a department until 1997, when it became a branch within Corporate Services. It was interesting when we made that transition because it was part of a larger corporate change. John Mills, who was the general manager of IT at the time, became the branch manager in 1997 and then they realized, “Oh no, IT is not strategic anymore. What do we do?” So they hired Gartner. Gartner said, “You need a CIO.” So they made John the CIO in 2001 and the CLT approved it. The challenge was, I’ve now realized, is that they never defined the role. John was in the role, he defined the role, but he was really functioning as the GM of IT. I just came on as the CIO, I didn’t know about branch managers and all this other stuff until I realized the organization was trying to put me in a box and just be the speeds and feeds and wire person. Which I knew was not what the organization needed. When I was in Brampton between ’01 and ’08, probably it was around 2004-2005, I realized the role of the CIO was not defined well in any municipal organization. And the reason I’m here today is because I believe we all have a responsibility to help each other and help cities and the country define the role. What we’ve been doing over the last year is going through a cultural transformation which is leading to an organizational change, which is really driven by the senior leaders. Not the CLT, but the next level down, they asked them for ideas, which they have since implemented. As part of that, working on IT governance and the role of the CIO, I finally got to a point with my general manager last week where he agreed we need to define the role of the CIO. But now they’re also looking at defining the role of the chief human resource officer, the city solicitor, the chief communications officer. Then, how do those people advise and support the executive team and council. And for me it’s not about wanting a seat at the table, because frankly as I tell people in our organization, I have other things to do with my Thursdays, the challenge is the culture in the organization thinks I want to be there and stops me from being there because they think it’s a power play. And so I’ve challenged my peers and the organization to really articulate what they think the role of IT is in the organization and the role of CIO. Now I did that about a month after I arrived, and I had a conversation with the executive team, and I know what they want and I know what the mayor wants so I’m jus functioning that way but at times, I feel like I hear this chant coming down the hall from my peers with pitchforks and torches who want to throw me out. In terms of transformational projects, we’re working on something called Workspace Edmonton. It’s about changing the way we work. It’s about any device, anywhere, any time. It requires us to go to the cloud for our e-mail, our calendar and apps. It requires us to virtualize our software on the desktop. Our coporate leadership is looking for me and my team to bring those transformational changes.

Adam Hughes, Director of IT, Region of Peel: I’ll never forget my first introduction to our executive management team on my first day of work. One of the commissioners – I think he thought it was funny – said, “Oh, I’ve got a problem with my BlackBerry. Can you fix it?” And I thought, oh, wow. I’ve gotten that a lot, and even though nine times out of 10 I know darn well how to fix it, I’m inclined not to. I’m inclined more to say, “Maybe that’s a help desk call.” We too have some fairly big initiatives, spending a lot of money on data centres and virtualization, but how they’re positioned are less about the technology and more about what it’s doing for the organization. So for example, the virtualization project in our organization is called MyDesk and it’s about getting information anywhere, anytime. It’s also about doing things more efficiently. Yes, we’re also putting in a lot of boxes and wires, but that’s not what it’s about. And a majority of the effort around that particular project is going to be about change management. Change management, as opposed to, “When am I going to get my new shiny thing?” and this sense of entitlement to, what do you actually need to do your job? The data centres is another good example. It’s not about the boxes at all. In fact, these are things that are seamless. It’s about business continuity and risk management.  But probably the biggest project we’re working on, which from a dollar perspective is quite small but will have a huge impact on the organization is called our application rationalization process, which really is about defining what our functional architecture is going to be for the organization, but we’re not talking about systems. We get into a lot of fights because we have a lot of history as to why we have some disjointed IT. We have five timekeeping systems, for example. We’re going to go through this process – I call it burning fat and building muscle – where we find these high-cost, low value duplicate systems and getting rid of them and focusing on low cost, high value. That will be a much bigger challenge than any other project I’m going to do because it has nothing to do with technology. It’s all about people and politics.

Brad Anguish, CIO, City of Halifax: I’m originally a Navy guy. I retired after 23 years of service when I was getting shot up in the Adriatic Sea. I decided that was enough of direction of political leaders. I decided to go to the city, took over Engineering, Public Works and a number of other things, and then they asked me to take a look at what was then called Business Planning and Information Management. What’s weird in Halifax is portfolios are built around the strength of the leaders who were in place at the time. So there are no real roles, per say. CIOs happen by default. I’ve also forced it into the organization. Basically I got pissed off, stuck it on my nameplate, and it stuck. What’s interesting in my portfolio is I have all the customer service pieces, I have all records management; basically, with the exception of media relations I have everything that is information. I can already see the writing on the wall – in fact council asked me: to what length was I going to go to integrate all of these elements and get to the real issue which matters to citizens, which is information. The quality and the relevance, and how it changes their lives. By complete accident, the role of the CIO is going to be about managing information from head to toe. Which I think is an interesting challenge, because it gets back to the role of the CIO being an innovator, and having enough influence over outcomes to citizens to actually make all of the enabling technology align.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Shane Schick
Shane Schick
Your guide to the ongoing story of how technology is changing the world

Featured Article

ADaPT connects employers with highly skilled young workers

Help wanted. That’s what many tech companies across Canada are saying, and research shows that as the demand for skilled workers...

Related Tech News

Tech Jobs

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Tech Companies Hiring Right Now