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For New City Manager, Tech Is a Key Tool of Future

Foster City doesn’t have a chief information officer, but the municipality has a new chief executive who’s well-versed in technology -- and he welcomes conversations with vendors big and small.

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A city in the heart of Silicon Valley is getting a new chief executive officer — one with a strong background in technology.   

Dr. Peter Pirnejad will take over as city manager of the 35,000-resident municipality on Jan. 4. The IT community will be especially interested in his background, which encompasses the private and public sectors as well as with nonprofits. Most recently, Pirnejad was senior director for Oracle’s Global Public Sector, following his role as director of the company’s Community Development strategy.

So, will IT vendors have a friend in Foster City? Some takeaways: 

  • “They have a friend in local government who understands the benefit that technology can bring when it’s addressing the right problems with the right solution," he said. “How I can be an advocate for how local government can take advantage of technology to solve some of their most complicated problems? My background in public, private and nonprofit give me a perspective that’s kind of unique to the industry. Having worked in Oracle really gave me a tremendous experience and exposure to how the cookies are made in government and technology. And now I feel I can better represent and usher in the technology that’s going to solve the biggest problems.”
  • He’s open to conversations with vendors — big and small. “I’ve been working with startups the majority of my career; I have a special place in my heart for that young entrepreneur — and by young, I mean young company — because they’re the ones most eager to work side-by-side with the city. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want to hear from some of the more established government technology companies, which are always eager to work hard and deal with more complex problems.”
  • He’s the chief executive of a city that doesn’t have a designated chief information officer — and he won’t be functioning as such. “We have an IT manager. For the time being, I wouldn’t say I’m going to be acting CIO, but definitely a proponent of technology that makes sense, that solves problems, that drives solutions and improves efficiency.”
The City Council is planning a policy summit in early February, and that’s when the heavy lifting starts for Pirnejad.

“We’re at the very beginning cycles of our fiscal year review, and as part of that, we’re going to be assessing technology needs on a department-by-department basis,” he said. “My goal, my hope is to bring more awareness around how technology can advance some of our priorities.”

The mayor of Foster City, Sanjay Gehani, also has a deep background in the technology industry, and he’s looking forward to bringing Pirnejad’s expertise to bear for the city.

“We’re very excited to be working with Dr. Pirnejad,” Gehani told Techwire in an interview Monday. “I think his experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors and his leadership skills makes it very exciting for him to come to Foster City. And his knowledge in the tech space gives us an opportunity to up-level the use of technology and how we engage with our community.”

From Gehani’s perspective, Pirnejad’s background in municipal government is among his biggest strengths — and he’s keen on the incoming executive’s background in technology.

“While (technology) is not going to be Dr. Pirnejad’s primary focus, I do think that with his knowledge and his background, he’ll be able to identify opportunities for up-leveling how we use technology to initiate a dialog with our community — not just for outbound messaging, but for real engagement,” Gehani said.

For Pirnejad, his new role offers an opportunity to use his skills and knowledge most effectively.

“I’ve had 20-plus years in local government,” he said. “I feel like this is where I can do my best work.”

Like every other governmental organization, Foster City has been adapting to having its staff work remotely since the COVID pandemic struck last spring. And like other governments, it’s nearing a point of deciding whether to keep the majority of workers remote, or to try to plan for a return to the office.

“Definitely some of the higher-priority areas are the need to promote remote work,” Pirnejad said. “The city has been working remote since the pandemic. We continue to need to be able offer the full range of services, not only to our staff but also to our constituents — residents, businesses. That continues to be an area where we want to drive technology to solve some of those problems.”

He added: “What I’m seeing is that cities are using this as an opportunity to provide not only a benefit to their existing staff, but to help open up the recruitment process, so we can recruit from a wider geography. Government has been really hamstrung on how they can attract talent because of the cost of living, especially in the Bay Area. It makes it difficult for people to take jobs. So there’s an opportunity to at least explore how we can use telework to acquire talent, and it could be a cost-saving measure as well.

“I know in the private sector, there’s definitely a cost saving from not having people on site, so we’re definitely going to explore that. If we’re able to retain some remnants of remote work, then you don’t have to live in the Bay Area. The one thing about government is that it will continue to be a high-touch industry, so there is an element of being in the office. I can see the possibility of having a two-tiered system where maybe you have some employees who have to be at work because of their particular jobs, like fire and police officers. But then others who do administrative work could potentially have a part-remote, part on-site accommodation. We’ll see. I’m excited to explore it, for sure.”

Pirnejad sees Foster City as being on the cusp of a step up, technologically speaking.

“Learning from what I experienced at Oracle, this whole notion of citizen services is being taken to a whole new level. It used to be that people were apprehensive about going to the cloud; now, those who have already embraced that idea are being less disrupted by these kinds of incidents (the pandemic). I’m definitely going to bring those types of recommendations to Foster City — a cloud-first technology, an open-data platform and ensuring that we have the ability and the technology to support remote work. There’s definitely an opportunity in every crisis, and in this crisis, we’re seeing a quicker adoption of cities to a digital platform. What I’m really excited about are services that we can provide our citizens that make it easier, faster, simpler, more predictable to engage with government, to really take advantage of those consumer experiences — that type of Amazon experience that residents are used to and can now see in their government agencies.

“The city has already started trying to tackle those high-touch, high-turnover services, like building permits. We partnered recently with Camino, so I’m excited … to see how we can make the permitting process easier. For me, it’s really about removing barriers to entry. Providing digital services, so people can pull simple permits online — that, to me, is a first and easy priority. The city has already started moving in that direction, and I want to continue that movement. We’re also a customer of OpenGov, and I … expressed my interest in continuing to utilize their services and be an example for other government agencies of how we can accelerate innovation in local government.”  

Pirnejad said his general goal, heading into his new role, is this: “I want to advance the industry as much as I want to advance Foster City. I want to see local government come out of this pandemic better than when they started.”

Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in the Northern California foothills.