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Commentary: Alameda County CIO Sees ‘Virtual First’ as 2021 Theme

The county's chief information officer and registrar of voters, Tim Dupuis, reflects on how the tumult of 2020 helped prepare government for 2021.

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The following commentary was written by Alameda County’s chief information officer and registrar of voters, Tim Dupuis. The award-winning CIO is also the president of the California Counties Information Services Directors Association.

The Alameda County Information Technology Department continues to focus on Virtual First, providing a secure digital government accessible anytime, anywhere as reflected in its Strategic Plan, launched in 2018.   

Since then, many initiatives have occurred to make this possible. The technology team moved into a new, modern workspace that sets an example for the county in its efficiency and modern workplace atmosphere that easily competes with Silicon Valley. The activity-based workspace allows employees to work where it makes the most sense based on the task at hand — at a sit-stand desk, in a comfortable collaboration area, on the roof for fresh air, or in a huddle room for quiet time. 

Each employee is given a laptop and a headset that allows them to work at their desk, in a drop-down space, at a coffee shop or at home. Security has been the primary focus of the end user with many layers being added including secure virtual private network (VPN) connectivity, enhanced endpoint detection and response (EDR), encrypted hard drives and multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all users. 

A work-from-home policy was launched in early 2019, allowing employees to work from home at least one day a week. That turned out to be fortuitous when, in March 2020, the governor of California mandated shelter in place. Most of the 200 technology employees were able to safely work from home the next day and have been doing so ever since. A skeleton crew is required on-site to support the data center, networks and radio. End-user support can be done remotely using TeamViewer. 

When the shelter in place was mandated, our vendor partners like Dell, Lenovo and Microsoft were there to help with supplying laptops and headsets as fast as they could get them, even emptying the Microsoft stores of available equipment. Always-on VPN and virtual desktops (VDI) were spun up within a week. Teams went from a limited usage to full usage within a month, and pop-up training was offered throughout the county. 

Another challenge was making sure employees could communicate with residents and co-workers in real time. Alameda County is already moving from a legacy, on-premise phone system to a cloud-based voice system using Microsoft Teams. With the pandemic, hundreds of users were immediately issued cloud phone numbers that allowed them to work safely remotely. For contact center employees with integrated voice systems, technology was implemented that allowed them to work remotely on a laptop or desktop with the same functionality they had when working on-site. 

Cybersecurity has been a key focus area of the county’s technology strategy before and during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, the county upgraded the infrastructure for communicating with the Internet, including next-generation firewalls and advanced monitoring of inbound and outbound network traffic. As noted above, the county accelerated implementation of technologies like VPN, EDR, MFA, disk encryption, and, in December 2020, adopted a countywide cybersecurity policy to help ensure consistency and priority of cybersecurity initiatives. 

To encourage collaboration, events such as employee appreciation, project celebrations, and departmental meetings are held in Teams to celebrate success, share new technology, and just get to know each other during informal get-togethers. 

To support Virtual First, automation and innovation is key. Examples include virtual marriages using e-payments, e-signature and Teams; a COVID-19 chatbot to answer commonly asked questions in three languages; and a Salesforce app to manage hotels for the homeless and the automation of many paper forms that customers and employees used to come in person to fill out. Some of these services, like virtual marriages, needed to be reimagined.  

In November, the Board of Supervisors adopted a Virtual First Service Delivery Guidance that builds on a hybrid work arrangement and virtual first service delivery model consistent with its Vision 2026. The guidance promotes innovative technology solutions that allow employees to do their work from anywhere, at any time, and for customers to receive their services remotely. The technology team has proven that it is more than ready to support the transformation. 

Virtual first was big in 2020, and it will not stop in 2021.