Delivering IT services in a pandemic - how the City of Seattle's IT team has risen to the challenge of COVID-19

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan June 17, 2020
Summary:
Saad Bashir, CTO for the City of Seattle, shares his experiences of IT services delivery during the pandemic crisis.

seattle
(Pixabay)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a test of strength for public sector IT services organizations, such as that of the City of Seattle, whose Chief Technology Officer Saad Bashir has been on the frontline of enforced operational changes in recent months.

The City of Seattle is a local government entity of around 15,000 employees with an IT department of 700 dealing with every aspect of technology from applications through infrastructure to cyber-security, mobility and digital workplace tools. Bashir says the tech organization has a very simple goal:

For Seattle IT to become a best-in-class, digital delivery services team, second-to-none in our universe of local government space [and] behind our best-in-class ambition is our desire to have a best-in-class culture.

For the past three months, the IT team has been at the forefront of ensuring delivery of vital citizen services during the pandemic crisis. Bashir recalls:

For us in Seattle, the stay at home order came at the beginning of March, although we had been in planning mode for some time [on how] to handle a remote workforce. We couldn't really tell you how it would all go down, until one morning, the entire organization decided to stay home and log in.

The scale of the challenge ahead became apparent from a scan of the metrics, which saw a doubling of service and incident requests from pre-COVID levels, a tenfold increase on the use of the VPN and “a phenomenal rise” in the use of conference calls and videos:

The first few days involved an 'all hands on deck' approach to troubleshooting so that the employees across all departments could settle into a remote environment, from providing basic items, like laptops and headsets, to some; enabling the city's contact center staff to function remotely; setting up technology for COVID testing facilities; and several other ad hoc operational needs that needed tech enablement.

The first 48 hours or so were also “scary`’ for the IT team as the remote working order came down, says Bashir:

We had done a lot of tabletop exercises, we had thought this through on a piece of paper, but we hadn't really put it into motion on such a large scale - ever. There were really some good stories and some learning opportunities. In terms of the good news, we had been investing in our VPN infrastructure for some time. That was behind the scenes,  nobody in the organization ever knew about it. On an average day we would have 300 or so VPN connections alive. During the COVID time, in the first few days, we [had] thousands of people logging in and using the VPN and the infrastructure held beautifully. People were amazed how they were able to really feel no difference, whether they were working from home or from the office.

Learnings 

There were also some important learnings that became apparent, he add:

One of the things that we normally lacked - and [COVID-19] really put a spotlight on that gap for us - was the absence of having good Unified Communication systems for some of our Operational Technology (OT). We've got dashboards, lots of them, but the ability to bring all of that information together so that the communication flow is as smooth as possible, that was something that we were working towards, but we were not there yet by the time COVID hit. So, that was a validation that we needed to have there.

One of the things that we learned also was the ability for employees to quickly grasp and start making use of all of these day-to-day collaboration tools, from Skype to Microsoft Teams and others. We underestimated how tech-savvy our employee base is, and we found that  actually, when given the opportunity, they started behaving like Microsoft employees from across the road in Seattle. We feel quite good about the experience so far and we know where we need to invest our time and money.

In relation to investment, in common with many other organizations, Seattle IT has seen an acceleration in the speed of strategic decision-making during the crisis. Bashir confirms:

The speed of automation and digitization has really picked up steam over the last few weeks, versus the last few years at the City of Seattle. That is a really positive sign. We're automating every workflow around us that we can using a variety of different tools. Unlike when I used to work for example with Citibank, where their core business was banking, or Flextronics, where it was all about manufacturing, in an organization like the City of Seattle you've got 30, very independent business lines. from electricity generation to police department fire to road construction, and everything else. And even though within each one of those areas digital transformation is happening, using a variety of tools and technologies, the challenge for us that we always stumble upon is, how do you do a super digital transformation on top of all of those things? You can make the police department really modern and slick, but if that department cannot talk with the Seattle Fire Department or exchange information, then of course you don't have the complete picture. That is the opportunity for us and for our partners who are working with us to help us gain a complete picture of all of the various moving parts in the city of Seattle.

With COVID-19 set to be a long term consideration, theres' a list of items on the digital transformation plan that have been sped up - digitization of manual workflows; deployment of new collaboration tools, such as WebEx and Team; the use of Automation-as-a-Service to provide a formal process for engaging in opportunities, such as Robotic Process Automation; running training sessions for almost 10,000 staff to get them comfortable in using a variety of tools; creation of an app store on the City of Seattle intranet to allow for quick downloads of productivity tools; creation of a chat bot in a one week period to manage increased information requests; several GIS mapping solutions to help with health tracking as well as with local businesses. such as restaurants.

Longer term, the wider cost of dealing with the pandemic and its as-yet-uncertain macro-economic impact, means there will, says Bashir, be an inevitable demand for IT to do “a lot more with a lot less”. That said, the City has already benefitted from savvy investments pre-COVID around technology resiliency:

The reason why our VPN was able to withstand the enormous load, was because of the high degree of engineering work behind the scenes for redundancy. The last few weeks have also validated for us the need to have a unified view of our infrastructure. Simply having strong redundant systems that are isolated is not sufficient, The systems need to be seamlessly connected so they can inform decisions, especially during a crisis. On this front, partnering is beneficial to bring unified management to the Operational Technology folio. 

Another opportunity is around further consolidation of our technology platforms. Like other large organizations, our technology portfolio has grown over a long period of time….[The COVID crisis] has taught us the importance of being extremely nimble in our approach, with flexibility in both how we use our systems and our business processes. At the same time, we must be extra considerate on issues such as cyber security and infrastructure management.

There’s one change ahead that Bashir describes as “a bit of a blasphemy” coming from a CTO and that’s the shift away from thinking about IT and OT towards replacing the terms with what he calls Business Technologies:

I feel that, as a CTO, one of the things that we can do is give as much power, as much enablement, to our end users, versus holding on to a lot of the technology that a traditional IT shop will hold on to. We are actively searching for opportunities where we give more control to our business lines, so long as we are adhering to a standard discipline of architecture and policies and security guidelines. That is where we are going. The line is going to be so blurred between the two. At the end of the day, the person who is going to be holding the baton on these technologies should be the business [users] who are actually using it for operating.

As that shift takes place, there’s one other change that Bashir has noted in relation to how IT is perceived across the organization:

One realisation that many of our clients have had is how essential is technology and IT resources that often are taken for granted.