Boston city CIO pushes public Wi-Fi

Bill Oates, CIO for Boston, talks with Network World’s Jon Brodkin.

How did you become Boston’s CIO, and what were the reasons you decided to take the job?

Well, I had worked in the travel/hospitality sector for most of my career, almost all of my career. After 20-plus years and six years as CIO, I left Starwood at the end of '05. I was looking at some other travel/hospitality roles. I was doing a little consulting, but I was really looking to do something different. I always had this kind of passion for local government and what you could do. I was chairman of the [Watertown] Board of Health when I was a college student at BC [Boston College]. . . . So as I was looking around, I saw a posting on one of the Web sites that said it was a CIO position. Did a little bit of research into it and found that Mayor Menino had made it a Cabinet-level job in Boston, that it reported directly to the mayor and that . . . Boston really wanted to push forward with a ton of technology initiatives. I thought, boy, it would be great to get into a different kind of industry.

How did your interview go with the mayor?

We hit it off pretty well. He talked to me about what his vision of technology was for the city, how critical he thought it was, how much work he thought we had to do to really move forward. I was getting sucked into it, seeing the tangible benefit, changing things and doing things in the city environment . . . for constituents and the different agencies. It just really appealed to me.

Why did you leave Starwood?

They had gone from being a big real estate owner and hotel-management company to more of a streamlined management company. They sold a lot of their assets. So we had all been waiting for about a year for a pretty significant restructuring to go on within the organization. All of that came down toward the end of '05. It was one of those things where they were consolidating positions. It was very clear this was the time. After 20-plus years with the company, we had a great handshake and said this is it, it’s time to go do something new. It was a big change for me. . . . I was thrilled the Boston thing came so soon, because I love running an IT organization.

Now that you work for the mayor, how is your job affected by politics, and how is it different from working in the private sector?

It’s been great to be in this kind of Cabinet position. So I get that very consistent interaction with [Menino]. His view is he’s not a technology guy, but he absolutely understands the value of the technology and how important it is for the city to be efficient, for the city to improve customer service, deal with the limited resources and things we have. The great message I get is he’s relying on me to help all of his Cabinet members corral their requirements and figure out how we do this intelligently.

The difference is . . . it is public. It’s very public. The public is interested in it, the press is interested in it. I think that kind of interaction on the public face is something I wasn’t used to. . . . We sit in Cabinet meetings and deal with those daily issues that become important. There’s a lot of process things that go on here that are a little different here in the public sector. When you think about procurement, contracting and stuff like that, . . . that part of it is something you’ve just got to get used to. There’s statutory issues involved about the bidding process and how you do that. That’s probably the one part of it that hasn't come naturally.

Do you have more budget constraints in Boston than at Starwood, or fewer?

We have budget challenges. Again, one of the differences is in our private-sector world, we did a lot of things that were very clearly just intended to raise revenue. And coming up with our ROI for a project, it was pretty clear cut. If we could identify that we could increase revenue at a hotel level or in terms of how we were distributing the product, investing in the Web, gaining share on the distribution side against third parties that were coming out into the travel market over the last five to 10 years . . . you could clearly justify the investment in infrastructure, the investment in applications and the investment in people to do those kinds of things.

So your department in Boston would not be seen as a moneymaker?

There are revenue issues associated with the city, but the revenue with the city is coming from property taxes, it’s coming from state aid, it’s coming from those kinds of things. And so the focus is much more on helping people deliver the services that are needed to be delivered. One of the big areas for us is to drive some efficiencies, to do a better job of utilizing the information we have, to do a better job of just taking some of the existing processes and changing them and supporting them with technology to make them a little cleaner, to make them more efficient.

How have you made the city more efficient so far?

We have initiatives like our CRM initiative. For us, CRM in this world is constituent-relationship management. We’re pushing through a project that’s going to improve the front end. Constituents are calling the city. Today, they are calling lots of different places. We have lots of numbers, lots of agencies where people call. Were going to start expanding on what we have today, which is a great mayor’s 24-hour hotline. . . . We’re going to increase the size and the scope and the training and professionalize that call center so constituents will have an easier time of getting to someone who can help them with their service. At the back end we’re going to connect that front end to the delivery parts of the city. . . . Over time, what that will create is a much more professional, data-driven front end for all the stuff going on in the city from a constituent’s perspective. When a constituent calls now they’ll be answered by someone with a lot of information in front of them about the issue they’re dealing with, about how long it might take for us to deal with it. That’s part of improving customer service and at the same time driving some efficiencies.

How is the wireless Internet project going?

It’s going great. It’s a great concept; it’s a little different than what other cities are doing. . . . The model is that a nonprofit entity is going to be raising the money, building out the network and then operating the network. This will cover the entire city. We will have a wireless infrastructure across Boston.

We’ll be leveraging city assets. This network will be built out on top of school buildings, other city buildings, traffic signals and street lights. As you think about the thousands of access points that were going to have to establish throughout the city, we’re doing that, so we spend a lot of time right now with the folks working on the nonprofit side of it, with city people (including the school department, public works and transportation). What we’ve been able to do is coordinate a city effort to help the nonprofit move this thing forward.

Is the wireless access available yet?

We did some hot spots back in October. So from Cambridge Street in front of City Hall, through City Hall plaza, through the marketplace and then out to the waterfront, we’ve lit those up. There’s been free Wi-Fi access for that whole area since the middle of October. At the same time we announced those hot spots and lit them up, we also announced our first major pilot . . . down in the Grove Hall/Roxbury area. . . . We have partners that have donated the antennas and equipment. We are just at the starting phases. The antennas have showed up. We’ve done the site surveys. Through the month of March we’ll be lighting up this first pilot area.

When will it be available throughout the city?

We’re probably looking at six months of pilot activity, check the technology, check the utilization. We want people to use this, we want to see how utilization impacts the design of the network. . . . Our original plan was we would try to finish by the end of 2008. We still may be able to do that. It’s challenging. Were finding the typical things out there that every city finds when they do this. You know, the light pole that would be a great place for an antenna doesn’t have power 24 hours a day. . . . Were working through it, and everyone’s been really cooperative.

How many people work for you?

We have about 110 people in what we would call City Hall MIS [management and information services]. City Hall MIS would be the folks who are supporting PeopleSoft, folks supporting network and telecom, some other application folks, the Web site. All of those functions are part of core City Hall. There are other IT resources out in schools, in the library. . . . You’ll find agencies that have some of their own systems still and have some level of technical support there. One of the things were looking at is the coordination of all that activity.”

Are you doing any hiring these days?

Yeah, we have [five or six] vacancies now. We have some new positions that were adding. . . . Were going to try to deal with some of the functional voids we’ve identified here.”

What types of new positions are you creating?

We have some process areas where we need to do some more work. We don’t do a great job right now in terms of strategy and planning. Some of that forward-looking ‘how do we pull all this together?’”

How do you find new employees?

We get a lot of inquiries. I have people that through different places in the city and external to the city, [and from] past relationships who have called, sent résumés, said I’ve heard about the stuff you’re working on and it sounds interesting. . . . We have a good team here. I was really fortunate that the core of the team in the city is good; they’re well respected in the user groups in the city for doing that job. I like people to have that passion to say this is fun, combining technology with this public-sector, public-service aspect not only can be professionally rewarding but can be personally rewarding. Those are the people I find interesting.

There’s a number of leadership positions we need to fill. . . . There are some internal candidates that might be able to move up into those positions, and there’s a few others where we’re going to have to go outside.

How long will you stay in this job?

Til I get a bunch of stuff done, I don’t know. I’m enjoying it. I’m working really hard . . . There’s such an opportunity to really implement things that can last beyond me, beyond the mayor, you know, that we can look back on at some point and say we fundamentally changed how the city delivers services, how efficient it is, how responsive it is. That’s going to take a while.

Did you have to take a pay cut when you took this job?

Yeah. You know, to be quite candid with you I had a great experience with Starwood. And my experience and tenure with Starwood allows me to do this. . . . I’m well compensated for this job, but I was allowed to make this kind of decision at this time in my life, because I had a really good run in the private sector.

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