As part of Techwires ongoing effort to educate readers about government agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here is the latest from our regular series of interviews with departmental IT and cybersecurity leaders.
Carolyn Staats is the first director of innovation for Sonoma County. She joined the county information systems department more than eight years ago, working first on the file, then as a project manager before being named director of innovation. Her previous work in the private sector includes 14 years as Chief Information Officer at Birkenstock.
Since joining the county in July 2013, Staats has led several IT projects, including the SoCo COVID-19 Check mobile app, which enables residents to self-check before entering public buildings, and the award-winning Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self-Sufficiency Sonoma Circle Initiative (ACCESS Sonoma). She was the IT director of the initiative. The project won the Advantage Award 2019 from IBM Watson Health in the Consumer / Patient Outreach and Communications category; two awards from the National Association of Counties, including the 2019 Health Achievement Award, for improving their services; and the Financial Times‘Business award for the public sector. In 2019, Staats was awarded by the New York Times and IBM as one of the 40 best women in the world to work in artificial intelligence.
In July, the ACCESS initiative received earmarked funds from the US House of Representatives for further development. Work on the enterprise-level cloud-based data hub was stimulated by the forest fires in 2017, four of which burned in the county. What was needed was an integrated system that would connect about half a million residents to health, criminal justice, welfare and housing services – which had been isolated – while protecting their data. Ultimately, in late 2017, IBM reached out to the county to work together, and SimpliGov joined as well. ACCESS aims to help the most vulnerable residents of the district. It uses the IBM Watson Care Manager and IBM Health and Human Services Connect360 tools, as well as SimpliGov Process Automation systems, and is based on a San Diego County initiative that developed a tool that enables access by community partners. The system is mobile-friendly and uses forms created by SimpliGov that allow data to be captured and used in a cloud-based app that aggregates multiple IBM services. In conversation with Techwire, Staats offered important insights from the project and discussed upcoming initiatives:
Cooperation is essential. “We can be thought leaders. We don’t have to think small. We may have to take smaller steps to get there, but we don’t have to think small. And the key is collaboration, ”said Staats. This, she added, fueled ACCESS – district agencies working together in a safety net collaboration, including the departments of health services, human resources, probation and childcare services, and the community development commission. Officials reached out to IBM with their ideas – no budget – and “IBM said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting idea.’ They came to the table, ”the director said, noting that thinking outside of silos began with this group. It’s a balancing act between mandates and limited resources and lack of funding, but staying up to date and thinking even further can be brought within reach through “hybrid partnerships with the private sector,” Staats said – and by bringing people together who are from who are enthusiastic about the work, willing to take their time. As with the solutions they create, teams need to be “platform open and vendor independent,” she said. According to Staats, the cooperation could also stimulate legislation that could enable data to be exchanged.
Institutional knowledge must mesh with future-oriented thinking. “Discounting institutional knowledge is a big mistake … if you want a faster path to success,” said Staats. “But the institutional knowledge experts must also understand that the attitude ‘This is not possible because of …’, which in today’s world only has a short shelf life.”
Keep the customer – or resident – experience in mind and take a customer-centric approach. Sharing data on behalf of a customer can create a better experience for everyone, the director said. But also remember that users’ experiences are based on their personal experiences – and so is the technology. “I use technology, and this technology and its functionality raise my expectations of the technology. I don’t compare my technology to government technology or private sector technology, ”said Staats. “I do not think so. I think if I’m in this area this is how it should work. Period. It does not matter.”
Don’t use new technology to create a new version of an old process. Sonoma County was an early adopter of e-signature and electronic forms, moving into the field more than five years ago. The pandemic has of course since spurred other governments to work in this area. The choice of low-hanging fruit as IT projects is fine, Staats said. But: “We looked at it from a real transformation standpoint, that is, we don’t choose projects, believe it or not, because they are low hanging fruits. … I think that is not the digital transformation. ”Instead, the district decided on a weak point that affected the majority of its users: personnel development. Solving this means employees can now be reimbursed for annual health and wellness awards within one payroll period.
Current, potential work: Sonoma County has done some work with “digital process automation bots,” said its director of innovation – but the government wants to put some intelligence behind them to ensure they can “do more than just archive documents.” One potential area where technology could play a role is in solving challenges between the district courts’ case management system and court protocols, which Staats says are “business-critical to anyone on the judicial side.” The county is also looking “from a future standpoint for some collaboration tools to work with community partners on homelessness and appraisals and the like” and could continue working on IT resilience and disaster recovery towards the end of 2021. The county has already run a tender in this area and a vendor is conducting an organizational assessment of the infrastructure at the departmental level of key units – but it is likely that additional requirements will exist.