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Techwire One-on-One: Nevada County CIO on Teamwork, Move to Cloud

Steve Monaghan pictured next to a quote that says: “The shifting role of the CIO now is, I’m not trying to convince anybody to use technology anymore. They get it now. We’re trying to get them to use it effectively, efficiently, and safely.”
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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 and cybersecurity leaders.

Steve Monaghan is agency director for Information and General Services and chief information officer at Nevada County, a post he has held since April 1999. Nevada County, a regular honoree in the Center for Digital Government’s* annual Digital Counties Survey, placed fifth by population in July. Among other affiliations, since 2015, Monaghan has served as an IT leadership instructor and program facilitator for the California County Information Services Directors Association (CCISDA), where he created and helped facilitate the CCISDA/CSAC County Technology Executive Credential Program to train emerging California county IT leaders. In July, he became a Broadband Advisory Committee member at the Rural County Representatives of California; and in June 2020, he became a Cybersecurity Program Advisory Board member for California State University, Chico (CSUC). In 2015, Monaghan began serving as a Telecommunications and Technology Steering Committee member for the National Association of Counties.

He has a bachelor’s in computer science from CSUC and his professional development includes the Certified Government Chief Information Officer Program (CGCIO) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the Leading, Educating And Developing Program (LEAD) at the University of Virginia.

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?

Monaghan: I came to the county in ’99, so I’ve been here a while, and my role has changed over the years. I’m not just a county CIO, but I’m an agency director, so I have a number of other departments — so my personal role has evolved over the years ... . I’m on my fourth or fifth CEO now; I’ve been here that long. And talking with my first CEO, we used to have conversations about ‘I can bring the horse to water, but I can’t make them drink.’ That was the analogy. Senior execs were trying to get them engaged and they were really just not looking at that technology. Now, it’s at a point where the horses are running out in front of us and we’re running to keep up with them. That’s kind of how I would describe the difference. The horses running out in front of us is the ease or the enhanced accessibility of technology to departments now. You’ve got these consumerization tools out there — Microsoft Teams and Smartsheet and Dropbox and all these consumer/professional-type products that they can just, with a credit card, sign up for. As well as cloud-hosted applications so they can really engage and be much more agile ... and get a cloud-hosted system set up and going. It’s a lot easier than it used to be in the old days. What does that mean to the CIO? It means we have a whole lot more technology in our environment than we’ve ever had before. ... The breadth is really wide, and then the depth is really deep as well in that it’s not just one or two.

The amount of technology, the number of systems — we keep a service directory of all the products and services that we support and it’s doubled in the last three years, which just puts a tremendous load on our existing IT staff. While you’ve got support, because you’ve got infrastructure as a service, you’ve got application as a service, you’ve got Microsoft Office 365, but the sheer volume erodes any labor savings that you got from being able to move those types of products and services to those models. Which, thank goodness they have those models because we needed that extra capacity, otherwise we would have had to double our staff. But as sales people always say, ‘You’re going to save so much labor by moving this.’ Well, I’ve never realized any labor savings. I would say there’s a truism in IT shops: Demand always exceeds supply. And our No. 1 supply is our team, our team’s hours in the day and there’s just not enough hours in the day on our team to do everything our customers want us to do. The shifting role of the CIO now is, I’m not trying to convince anybody to use technology anymore. They get it now. We’re trying to get them to use it effectively, efficiently and safely. And trying to manage this complex environment that we find ourselves responsible for is a daunting task, because it’s just ... more and more complex. And the tools that the IT team have to use to manage this more complex environment are complex in and of themselves now. ... They take a significant amount of workload in and of themselves.

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

Monaghan: I have an IT manager who leads the effort for us. We’ve been doing strategic plans for 20 years and so we have a pretty good framework and methodology that we go about in doing it. So, I partake in those sessions, I help lay out the strategy of how we’re going to develop it and then we engage our stakeholders and our IT staff to help flesh out the content and the priorities that are then going to be plugged into the framework. ... We try to do three-year updates. You can’t really look out more than three years; it’s probably pretty obsolete after 18 months. ... We also have a five-year capital plan that we update annually because it’s just that. But you have to look at your infrastructure because most of your infrastructure has about a five-year life on it, so for budgeting and capital expenditure purposes, we do a five-year plan and update annually with our budget, on our capital plan.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Monaghan: We have a few. We just finished one of our biggest projects in a while, which was our enterprise voice over Internet protocol, and we went live with that in January. So, that’s off the books. That was a huge project. And then, like all organizations, with COVID and teleworking, we’ve done tons of infrastructure over the past year — projects. But on the books right now, I would say, we have an RFP ... for a Public Records Act request system ... . We are doing body cams right now with our sheriff’s office and I think the RFP just closed. We are moving our finance platform to the cloud and then I would expect in a couple years, we’ll do an RFP for a needs assessment for replacing that system and then do an RFP for a new ERP (enterprise resource planning) system.

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?

Monaghan: Yeah, digital transformation is one of those buzzwords, to me, that I don’t use very much. Our industry loves hype cycles, right? It was big data, then it was hyperconvergence ... . To me, I really don’t look at my role in ... those kinds of hype cycles. We have been working on automating business processes in our major applications for 20 years. When I got to the county every ... major application was homegrown on a mini-computer and we methodically went through every single one of those, from our finance, payroll, permitting ... our road system. All of those were in-house and we moved all those to COTS (commercial off the shelf) systems and then the COTS systems have moved to a lot of cloud-hosted versions of those systems. I’ve been here long enough that I’ve pretty much replaced every system twice and I’m working on the third round on a lot of them. But I think that to talk transformation, it’s not those major systems that really transform the organization. They do put a lot of services online, which is really great. But it’s the automation of the 50 percent of all the other business processes that live outside those major applications in our business units that are still based on paper or paper forms, email processing, Excel spreadsheets, those kinds of things and automating those processes, which I think really transforms an organization and makes it more efficient and effective and increases capacity so that they can improve services and provide better services to our citizens. Is it ever done? No. ... I figure if you take any one department — take the building department, permitting, maybe half of their business processes are actually automated in their major Accella platform. And then the other half of the work that the employees do is outside of that and it’s all email, Excel spreadsheets, paper forms, scanning this, shuffling that. Luckily, they’re not faxing anymore. ... We’ve always been a big Microsoft shop and a SharePoint shop and using SharePoint for collaboration and document management and workflows. And now, we’re really getting into Power Apps and building Power Apps on top of SharePoint for process automation and forms automation, and then using Power BI for your intelligence layer on top of that, your presentation data analysis layer. That’s really exciting. We’ve used several different business process management (BPM) platforms over the years, and Power Apps seems to be easier and a tool where I can have multiple analysts in my Dev team knock out solutions more quickly than some of those other BPM platforms that we’ve used in the past. I’m excited about that.

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

Monaghan: The county’s overall budget is about $270 million. The IT budget in the IT shop is about $5.5 million but a lot of those business line software applications — we’re a centralized IT structure in our county, so all IT staff lives in the IT department, but a lot of the IT spend is outside of the IT department. The Accella platform that the community development agency uses, they pay for that platform directly, it doesn’t run through my budget. I track all that through accounting codes in our fiscal system and we’re at about 3 percent, maybe 2.8 percent ... average of IT spend to budget. Government organizations usually run in the 2 percent to 4 percent range. You’ll see some outliers, maybe in Silicon Valley or L.A., that run a little bit higher, maybe 5 percent, and then you’ll see a lot of smaller rural organizations across the country running 1.5 to 2 percent. And it depends on what suite of services they provide. We provide everything — voice, turnkey process automation, business intelligence, etc. ... So, we’re right at that average, which makes me feel good. If you’re underfunded you’re always struggling and you have infrastructure atrophy, you’re losing opportunity because you can’t innovate.

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?

Monaghan: I feel bad because I came from the private sector — I was a partner in a consulting firm and it was a different world then. Email was just starting to get really popular and there was no social media, so it was all relationship-based. Maybe I’m old school, but I still reply to vendors who I met at a conference ... and got to know. And it’s just, as a CIO — and I’m just a CIO of a little rural county in Northern California — I get overwhelmed with solicitations. I probably get, if I don’t look at my spam folder, ... I get a dozen a day at least in my email. I probably get a half-dozen phone calls a day and I probably get a half dozen to a dozen (messages) on LinkedIn a day. And they all want 20 minutes. If I replied to all of them it would take a couple hours a day. It’s just overwhelming. I typically don’t reply to any of them. ... My advice to the vendor community is, go to quality conferences and spend quality time with ... customer IT leaders and get to know them. Those are the people that we reach out to when we have a need or a question, or if they call me and I had lunch with them at a conference ... I’m more likely to return that call because I know the person. These cold calls ... they’re just overwhelming.

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

Monaghan: There’s been a lot of great projects over the years. ... I don’t think there’s anything that special in any one project. What I’m most proud of is the team we have here, what we’ve built in the organization; and that year after year after year, we do customer surveys and we get high satisfaction rates from our customer surveys. We get recognized as a leader in technology leadership with the volume of work that we do and the type of work that we do. That’s more meaningful to me, having that track record and that team and that culture, than any one project.

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

Monaghan: The whole public IT procurement is, to me, very frustrating. I think that the most frustrating thing for me in IT procurement is complicated vendor SKU (stock-keeping unit) numbers and bundling of components for a solution. ... It can be very, very frustrating in trying to figure it out, and inevitably you always miss some kind of key component for some kind of key functionality, and then you find out it’s going to be X more to get that when you thought it was going to be included. Or it’s a domino — ‘Well, you can’t have that unless you add these other three.’ What I really appreciate are vendors that take a more holistic approach and have minimal SKUs and they don’t itemize the functionality on a product.

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

Monaghan: I read Government Technology* ... I’ve got kind of a news aggregator that pulls in ... a couple of the federal government (sites). I like Wired, I like Harvard Business Review articles. There’s multiple universities that have government research institutes ... and they’ll publish papers. IBM has a great one that’s on government technology. They’re kind of off the beaten path, but the more think-tank kind of stuff. I’m also a real avid biker and I ride four to five times a week, so I use a lot of audiobooks. I’ll usually listen to some kind of leadership audiobook as I’m riding. I get a lot of audiobooks run through that way.

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

Monaghan: Mountain biking is my hobby. We have a little property; we do a lot of gardening, landscape work around the house. I’m into kayak fishing. My wife and I go out kayak fishing; the kids have kayaks. We do camping a lot. And reading — I used to read a lot of leadership management books. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell was pretty interesting. I like him. And I started Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, although I don’t know if I’m going to finish it. I’m ... halfway through; I don’t need 20 more examples to reach the same point.

*Government Technology magazine and The Center for Digital Government are part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.

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