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Lessons from a Long-Time CIO: Otto Doll

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene
February 8, 2019

After launching his career in the private sector and the federal government, Otto Doll began a long-held position as a state and city Chief Information Officer (CIO). He was first appointed to the position from 1996 to 2011 in South Dakota, and then from 2011 to the end of November 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That’s 22 years in all, one of the longest tenures as a public sector CIO in the nation. In fact, a startling number of CIO’s only stay in one place for two or three year, or even less.

He is easing into retirement by doing consulting work now. Yet given the combination of his long years of experience and the esteem he earned in the field, it seems like a perfect time to debrief him. A lengthy conversation with Doll elicited a number of lessons; some learned at the state level others at the city level.

For starters, consolidation is key. A wide array of systems–even if they are online – provide inferior outcomes if they can’t communicate with one another. The tragedy at the Word Trade Center in New York City brought this lesson into acute focus. Various first-responders had difficulty communicating with one another in the face of an unpredictable tragedy.

 In South Dakota, Doll took the need for consolidation seriously and brought digital technology to the state’s radio system. This meant law enforcement, fire departments, medical facilities and more could all be interlinked and intercommunicative. “Whether you were an FBI agent, or in one of the national or state parks, or highway patrol, or working in a hospital you were all on the same system,” Doll explains. “To my knowledge no one else in the country has been able to put all that together. But that was one of the advantages of being in a small state.”

Yet the path to a unified communication system is very rocky in cities and states with minimally consolidated powers within a central agency. For reasons that are sometimes little more than inertia, it’s relatively common for agencies to want to stick with whatever technology they’ve been using. A central authority can help a city or state leap over that challenge.

Though most of the lists of challenges confronting CIOs’ offices start with cybersecurity, Doll emphasizes another significant issue that cities and states face. He tells us, “The problem isn’t that things are broken. It’s that people just don’t know how to do things.” Technology can be complicated and yet computers, printers, modems, routers and so on fill many public officials’ offices without organizational support to explain their inherent complexities.

“How many people know everything Microsoft Word can do?” Doll asks. “Maybe nobody, except someone in Microsoft. There’s probably a couple of those guys in existence.”

The solution: easy access to service desks that can use the sometimes baffling software employees must interact with.

That may sound like simplicity itself, but there are hitches. Doll points out the potential problems that can crop up when a city or state outsources these functions to a vendor. “[The city or state] wants to use the same set of service desk people to support many clients, so they all have to fit into their service models,” he says. But that can be a superficial way to provide help to people who are coping with a variety of different types and configurations of technology.

Alternatively, states and cities could keep the service function in-house. They could make sure the men and women who provide counsel are familiar with a wide range of potential problems they might be called upon to solve. This approach can be improved even more by not only keeping careful track of the ways an entity is supporting people, but also areas where they have challenges.

One critical element that can also eliminate snags before they occur is providing enough up-front training. When states and cities are short on cash–as most of them have been at some point over the last decade-it’s easy to save dollars by cutting back on training.

As Doll explains, “For some parts of government, getting someone to take the training is exceedingly difficult. In law enforcement the officer is out there walking a beat. And superiors don’t want to take them off the streets in order to get IT training.” Support for training, however, is critical and Doll has emphasized this throughout his career.

Author: Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, principals of Barrett and Greene, Inc., have been reporting, analyzing and writing about state and local government for nearly thirty years. They are currently special project consultants at the Volcker Alliance; columnists at Governing Magazine; senior fellows at the Governing Institute; senior fellows at the Government Finance Research Center. Greene is chair of ASPA’s Center for Accountability and Performance (CAP).

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