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From “Can’t Do” to Budgeted IT Innovation in Albuquerque

When Brian Osterloh and Mark Leech joined the IT department for the City of Albuquerque they made a pact to always be a helpful resource for their clients, the city staff. Mark and Brian didn’t see failure as an option, but it was a process. Shaking the existing perception of IT was difficult.

I spoke with Brian and Mark to discover how they shifted city staff perception of IT from can’t do blockers to partners with budget allocation.

Want to meet Brian and Matt to discuss their strategies? Good news, they’ll be at the Code for America Summit, September 30 – October 2 in Oakland, CA. Register by August 15th to receive the early-bird discount.

Step 1: Start Small

What made you realize you needed to change the internal perception of IT?

Well, we weren’t getting any of our initiatives through. The existing approach involved going to city staff with solutions before listening to their issues. Most people didn’t want to talk to us.  We quickly learned to respect other department staff, realizing they have been doing their jobs for 5-15 years and we were only talking to them for 5-15 minutes. We didn’t ask about people’s long term goals or vision and were coming into the process too late.

What were some of the first tactics to build trust with IT?

We listened. We began to operate with humility. We realized we were blocking people at times. We didn’t have the bandwidth to ask them about their ideas. Once we created that bandwidth we realized that sometimes the best solution was to get out of their way.

One phrase you in the early days was “lead, follow or get out of the way.”  Why is that?

We played the gatekeeper way too much, and would usually push decisions off by six months or more, this phrase allows us to respond to all projects immediately.

We set up a collaborative environment to help departments own their efforts in reaching their strategic goals. Rather than being seen as doing a project for them, we are taking full advantage of everyone’s contributions. We just bring a supportive third set of technological eyes to their projects.

Step 2: Monitor Your Impact

How did people react?

Suspiciously. It took time, action and follow up. There was a little shell shock when we said people could run with an idea and just do it. In the past, we told people we were necessary to every technical process and that our approval was required. Once we shifted to say that we added value, people started to come around.

Now we’re providing value to our customers and act like internal consultants — we might not necessarily have the solutions for them, but we’ll help them identify the right tools to achieve their goals.

How did you show your value?

We offer a menu of services, including:

  • Documentation of the thought process, problem statement and the user need, identifying if a technical solution exists.
  • Ask them what role they want us to play:
    • Search for existing appropriate products or vendors
    • Serve as product managers
    • Conduct project scoping
    • Examine all options on the table
    • Identify goals and needs
    • Project feasibility study, in relation to existing municipal requirements
  • Go beyond desired technical features and  challenge people to talk about their dreams. Understanding where someone wants to go, and using their own language is motivating and gets people excited about the process.
  • Help translate lofty ideas into products and projects.

How long has it taken? What departments caught on first?

We started seeing outcomes 4-5 months after we changed our approach. Small victories fairly early on help. For instance, we started holding weekly meetings with the Transit Department IT lead discussing how to help each other without becoming entangled in our efforts. The result was an open data and transparency program. We were tasked to improve transparency without adding costs, so we aggregated all existing downloadable data sets, added a metadata document and worked with the departments to remove esoteric jargon for simple comprehension. The goal was to work with teams to help them understand what data to pull, how to document it and make it easy for the public to understand the data. We ensure that it’s an easy collaborative process.

Step 3: Plan for the Future

What are long-term benefits?

Once we developed a trusting dialogue we were able to convince departments to include budget items for technical projects. We reinforced that this is their money to spend and we would continue to add value to how they executed on the funds.

We have also created innovation funding with the COO’s office. Since the city is on a two-year bond cycle and you typically need three years to plan a bond measure we needed to find a way to  keep up with tech advances we could not for-see five years in advance. Through convincing the COO that the funding was still under their oversight, we were able to describe Business Technology Applications and the ‘Stuff that goes with it’ without any specifics. This was only possible with the support of numerous departments.

Has this process led to anything you didn’t expect?

We developed a 30k ft view of operations. In the past, one department would develop a process and slowly share out the experience. Now we’ve depressurized that situation by inviting everyone to the same table. We have identified programs done by multiple groups and are able to build one tool for cross departmental use, like our volunteer programming tools. We have also introduced an ‘it’s ok to fail’ mentality.

Next steps?

Do a better job at reaching out to the community. Continue understanding internal departments goals and empathising with them. Transition out of rigid legacy software and partner with other governmental agencies and organizations. Have humility in our delivery.