California Coastal Commission CIO Al Wanger

As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Al Wanger is chief information officer and deputy director for Information Technology, Water Quality, Mapping and Records Management for the California Coastal Commission, where he has built a 20-year career since transitioning over from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. (The commission was founded in 1972 and is under the California Natural Resources Agency.) Wanger worked in its water quality program early on, before becoming a deputy director around 2003. Shortly after that, the commission’s IT unit became part of his portfolio – and in the years since, he has seen it grow from a department with fewer than a half-dozen IT staff to a combination self-hosted and virtual environment that servers internal and external users. Wanger became more enmeshed in the commission’s IT leadership around 2005 and was formalized as CIO nearly 10 years ago. Next week, the commission is moving its headquarters elsewhere in San Francisco, and will stand up a new network and implementation its IT unit has designed – a unique challenge, the CIO said, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Techwire: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role; and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Wanger: The role has definitely changed. There’s an awful lot more coordination going on at the statewide level. The needed emphasis on IT security has necessitated a deeper level of coordination with, for instance, the Natural Resources Agency, which we’re part of. And it’s been developing an infrastructure to support smaller agencies like ours, as well as larger ones, in providing both a secure and stable environment and resources to assist where they can. I think … my particular role, again, is kind of a management liaison both between our staff and programs, (and) the commission – understanding what their needs are and trying to make sure that what we’re doing on the IT side is serving those needs. And at the same time, communicating from the IT side, what are the needs and challenges and services and potential solutions back to the management and staff so commissioners know what’s possible and what we might be able to do or not.

Again, with limited resources, what’s our best option and how do we path that forward? I guess … part of the other role, in working with the management team is trying to develop requests for additional resources and manage that. And when we get them, deliver; and when we don’t, figure out a different path to get where we need to be. That’s been an ever-present challenge in public service and certainly for our agency for many years, is just being resource-constrained. And I’m not whining about it, it’s just that’s the reality. So, we’re constantly doing more with less and trying to be creative in finding solutions to the asks and the problems that we have.

I think that probably the most significant thing that has come is the needs and emphasis on security, the changes in requirements and assessments and evaluations of our security posture. Obviously, there are new technologies and new threats and we try to keep apace with that. But that’s a rapidly and ever-evolving landscape. The pace of change and the capacity to manage that is – that’s probably the biggest challenge, is just time and capacity to stay on top of that which is coming at us.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Wanger: Well, as one of the deputy directors of the agency, I’m pretty intimately involved in what we’re doing. Both from a programmatic perspective, what we’re hoping to achieve in terms of policy objectives; and then, again, trying to look at what are the IT and information resources needed to support those efforts. And so, whether that’s particular types of systems or infrastructure or web-based informational materials or adapting to new requirements – for instance, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility – trying to figure what that is and how to integrate that into one’s strategic thinking for the long term.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2020? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Wanger: Given what’s going on with the COVID-19 response, I don’t expect many big initiatives. I think we’re going to be trying to consolidate working in a virtual environment for all our staff. We, basically in short order, had to figure out how to support all of our staff to telework. And now, run a statewide agency with significant responsibilities from our kitchen tables. That will continue. We’re looking to – we had to rush to do a few things just to get us operational. I think we’ll be looking to expand some of our capacities with different system access and shared resources and use of platforms like SharePoint and others for supporting the work of the agency.

I would expect (it) not likely that we’d be doing any kind of RFP in the next year or so, just because of retrenchment of budget resources and trying to manage from the operational side -- how do we keep the lights on, keep us running and do this as we are. So, that’s my look at the next year and a half, is just trying to maintain stability and operational capacity. I don’t foresee, really, any transformative initiatives. Unless something changes significantly, I don’t see any additional budget resources coming our way to do anything else. We’re slowly but surely continuing to modernize. And now with the telework needs, we’re looking at how we use the tools that we have, or that are supplied through … the Resources Agency or others to support our staff.

I think the second piece of that is working virtually, we’ve had to … figure out how to staff up and manage monthly commission meetings that we hold, that are public meetings for several days. We’re doing that virtually, in concert with our contractor agency video that provides our resources for the commission meetings, to do Zoom/webinar-style public meetings. We recently had several hundred people attending by Zoom to participate in this forum. And so, just trying to figure out we again stood that up to address the near term … I think that’s going to be part of our reality going forward. Even as we would hopefully go back to more in-person meetings, we’re still going to have some kind of remote component to those meetings. People will testify virtually and participate virtually; and I think, again, just kind of managing that and figuring out what that will look like and how we begin to staff that.

We, like many other state agencies right now, are supporting the efforts of contact tracing for COVID response. Some of our staff have been reassigned for that. So, with reduced staff resources and now some furlough days or … personal leave days … it just reduces the capacity, again, to bring resources wherever they need to. With that, it’s just the challenge for the next year and a half is, as I said, with reduced, limited resources, how do we keep the agency running and kind of grow forward? What we need to do to adapt to the new circumstance we’re working in?

Techwire: How do you define “digital transformation,” and how far along is your organization in that process? How will you know when it's finished?

Wanger: We began an initiative a few years ago to move from the paper-based process to more digital, and over the web -based process. Our monthly commission meetings, we have between 40 and 60 staff reports that are done for the commission – for their consideration, with an analysis or recommendation (for) projects that have come before them for permits, planning items from local governments and others. And for years, that was done by paper and that was many, many reams of paper per month. … So, we have gone to what we call an e-packet. Which is to, rather than produce those and mail those, that, we have set up systems for posting those on the web, for providing those electronically to our commissioners with updates that they can access and read, that are available … to the public. I would say in that regard, we’ve been fairly successful. I don’t think we’re finished there, as we’re kind of looking for improvements to the system. But at least we’ve moved us from several cases of paper a month to less than a dozen paper copies that get produced. …

We’re also slowly but surely moving to electronic document management in the longer term and trying to digitize many of our older documents to kind of keep that historic record for the commission’s work in digital format of the paper form. That’s going to be a longer-term effort, not an unsubstantial amount of work. But most of our records are for permits that run for the life of the project or with the land. So, we must retain those basically forever. And that means there is no document destruction, reducing your paper footprint. It only grows. And so, we’re looking to continue to digitize and scan our older documents into a digital library. Eventually, when we would be finished, we (would) have all of our documents back to the birth of the agency in 1972 available digitally and in an archive on the Web. We’re maybe 30 percent of the way there. But that’s going to be what ultimately success would be, would be that that is completed; that that’s an archive that is fully available, ADA-accessible and searchable on the Web. … And we’ve had, as of 1996 on forward, all of our staff reports are available online in an archive for the public to access. That’s something that we started some time ago. But at least as far back as 1996 … we have agenda materials and staff reports and others that are searchable and available online.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Wanger: I think our overall agency budget … is about $22 million to $23 million. That includes federal funds and other reimbursable grant funds. We have a total of about 170 to 175 total staff – permanent staff plus we have some interns. We also support about 20 commissioners or more, for their meeting needs. The IT unit of six people is supporting the work of about 200-plus folk. Six offices spread across the state. We have district offices in six locations ranging from San Diego to Arcata in Humboldt County. And they cover permitting, planning activity, work with local governments and property owners. With projects in the entire coastal zone from Mexico to Oregon. We also interface with the federal government on projects in offshore water. We have a small group that works with federal agencies on a variety of projects that they both implement and permit. So, we’re busy all the time.

I think our IT budget … honestly, we don’t have a line-item IT budget. It’s kind of embedded in our overall operations and again I don’t have a very good number for you. I would say between our network costs, our licensing costs, occasional equipment buys, we probably are somewhere in the neighborhood of around $250,000 for network and licensing could be $300,000 but that’s … again, it’s not a line item, it’s kind of embedded in overall agency operations … .

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Wanger: I don’t use personal use social media that much. I primarily get contacted by email; it’s probably the best mechanism. I get a lot of emails. Especially right now. I’d say for vendors to best educate themselves is to take a look at the agency’s website, understand a bit of what we do. We are a land use and permitting and planning agency. We have specific kinds of responsibilities – I do get a lot of requests from folks to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got some new service’ that has no bearing on anything we do. And while I appreciate their outreach, I typically don’t respond because it has no connection with what we do. So, I would hope, as part of the homework that people could do, is to take a look at what is it that the agency does and then, what is the service or product that they offer? How does it fit with where we are? Again, just kind of a capacity question. I just don’t have time to figure out how might I make use of your new … whatever it is. I can’t always take the time to step back and analyze and say, "Well, maybe we might be able to do something with it." I would rather know how it would help with some of the things that we are doing.

Techwire: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Wanger: I think what we’ve been successful at … is, our staff have done really a fantastic job of adapting, changing with the times. The technologies and the pace of change is a challenge, but with the few staff members that we’ve had, they’ve been really innovative and creative in getting us where we need to be. As far as a particular project or initiative … it took a while to get it funded, but we did a transformational project to bring in a Web-based, integrated data system to help us manage some multiple, home-grown … Microsoft access-based tracking systems that we had throughout the agency. We had 14 separate home-grown solutions to problems, that were not integrated, not shared not linked to GIS, not linked to any kind of adaptive management. We did an analysis, we evaluated what a few agencies were using. We had identified a potential solution implemented by a sister agency … for a land use management system, put together by the Accela corporation. We looked at their system; it was interesting. We finally got some funding; we did an evaluation of several different, similar solutions, had vendors competing in an RFP. But ultimately, we chose Accela as the solution for us and then brought that into the agency.

That was a significant change in business process as well as a new technical system and new added capacities. We were able to integrate all these stand-alone databases into a single platform that’s shared among staff, that allows them to track and manage the projects that come before us. We typically get somewhere around 3,500 submittals a year to the agency for the … 70 or so planners that we have. They range from complex, offshore energy projects to someone remodeling their house, to extensions of existing permits or appeals that come before us for local government action. So, being able to track and manage that, integrate that, in a way, that lets both the management and the staff see where projects are, be able to track their progress, access the data that’s relevant. And most important – you know, we have a permit streamlining app, we have a certain number of days to take actions, so we’re able to track those important dates. And then, we can provide both an integration with GIS to give staff some spatial, analytical capacities with the system and also document management to be able to attach key documents that helps them quickly resolve or look up or understand related projects or previous amendments to projects or things like that at their fingertips. … I think that made a significant change in how we do internal business. We’ve been on the path to stand up a public-facing version of that, which has been a little set aside right now because of the COVID issue. Once things settle down, we hope to roll back to that and work on putting forward a public interface for the public to be able to look up information. Our goal would be, as we are able to access and make available all of our records going back to 1972, that would be a tremendous asset to the public. But at least for now, we can get folks back to data back into the early 1980s that we have in our system; and once we’re able to stand up that public interface, then the public would be able to search and access and see and get access to those documents as well. That would have bigger implications for the public, to really be able to see and understand what’s going on and get information that they seek from us in other ways right now.

Editor’s note: The commission secured funding for the database around 2011 and did a procurement roughly a year later. It was deployed in 2013.

Techwire: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Wanger: Well, aside from … our database project, we have been primarily able to use some of the leverage purchase agreements to buy servers and laptops and computer equipment. And that’s been actually pretty good. I think on the bigger project procurement side, that was obviously more complicated. … I would say finding ways to streamline that review process would be a good thing. I’m being honest, I have not done a large procurement like that since really 2011-2012. But that left its mark. Honestly, I kind of go back to the resource question, and (the) issue of procurement, of key needs and systems is still a challenge. It’s always about available resource. And on some things that are of critical importance, like IT security, some of the training related to that, that all comes out of our budget. And it would be, I think, most helpful for those things that are critical to protecting the state resource – it’s not just our agency. If someone’s able to hack us, they’re able to do damage to the state infrastructure, and it would be great if there was a more streamlined … pot, a resource of money to pay for those things that are mandated and are critical. It would be of great service both to us and to the public. That’s a significant challenge even in the IT security area, where we have sought resources and been turned down.

We try to find ways to get those things done anyway but it makes it more difficult. And it would be helpful to have the resources to address the needs – and some of those are mandates and that’s fine. We just have to find ways to pay for that. … It is of critical importance and it’s something that we should take care of. And there should be a way to, both on the procurement side and the accessibility of resources side, to streamline that, if it’s really critical to protecting the infrastructure and systems and operations.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the govtech/SLED sector?

Wanger: Well, I read what I can. I get some Techwire articles, I get bulletins coming from the state CIO and California Department of Technology. We have monthly briefings from the Natural Resources Agency, the CIOs. So, I try to stay abreast as I can with that. But it’s a little more hit-and-miss. I don’t have a regular go-to source, but I keep my eye out and try to make sure I’m paying attention to that which really needs attention. There’s a lot of innovation out there, a lot of really interesting things, but I think part of the challenge for me is not to get distracted by the shiny object and chase that for a while, but … step back to look at what are our current needs, and what do I see as having to be addressed and where can I get the best information for that? Some of that is reaching out to my colleagues at other agencies and finding out what they’ve done; or if I’ve heard that so-and-so has implemented a new thing, I might reach out specifically to find out what that was and how it worked for them. To see what we might be able to do with something similar, or is it a solution that might help us with a particular problem.

Techwire: What are your hobbies, and what do you enjoy reading?

Wanger: Well my hobbies are a little more constrained than they used to be, but I still actually actively seek opportunities to head into the wilderness – backpacking, mountaineering, rock-climbing if I get the chance, a little fishing. To go to places where I can unplug and not be reachable and disconnect for a while to recharge. I enjoy reading history and biographies, science fiction just to do something different. I try to seek out alternatives to that which we do constantly every day, to fire the imagination and kind of refresh. When I’m able to, that’s what I try to do. Obviously the last six months not so much. But I try to, at least a few times a year, head off to the Sierras or the coast or hit the beach or do something to just unwind and unplug and reconnect. And spend time with family and enjoy the moment.

Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.