A new backend and internal mobile platform for the Tennessee city's 311 system showcases a CIO's philosophy of technology that puts people first.
The City of Memphis' drain maintenance team uses a new mobile platform to complete service requests faster. (City of Memphis)
Like most chief information officers, Brent Nair of Memphis, Tennessee's Information Services department wasn't hired for his people skills, even if he does have them.
Like most CIOs, Nair is juggling dozens of technical projects and thinking about security and frameworks. But, in Nair's experience, the efforts that go furthest are the ones that focus not primarily on technology, but the people who will use it.
Memphis CIO Brent Nair (Brent Nair)
"It's hard to do that because everybody wants to attach to the shiny, but at the end of the day it may not be the shiny that's going to be your star," Nair said. "It's about the people."
Memphis' latest star is an ongoing project to upgrade the city's service request backend using a mobile platform, and it's already delivering 33 percent faster turnaround time on ticket closure, Nair reported.
"I would say this project is going to have the most impact of anything we've done," he said.
The project, which launched in pilot form spring 2015, is a marriage of the city's existing Esri GIS system and Oracle suite, used to handle 311 requests. The city considered several off-the-shelf products, Nair recalled, but ultimately built a solution in-house that allows workers to close and retrieve service requests from the field.
The experiment transitioned into a full-time project in August, and the city is now testing the system with different functions within the public works department. The pilot began with drain maintenance and is now moving on to stormwater, solid waste, code enforcement and street maintenance.
"We've also taken that same platform and it's configurable enough to where it's going to be used by our traffic signal engineering group, it's going to be used by our property management group from general services, so we've been able to combine the best of both worlds and develop an application that really meets our needs," Nair said. "Now, a new fancy website, you know, that's going to be nice, but at the end of the day, it's not going to have the most impact on everybody. But if we can turn around, through technology, seven more drain maintenance requests in a week, that's going to have a tangible outcome."
The city's IT strategic framework — the pet document of any CIO — underpins Nair's emphasis on using technology to help people without getting distracted by 10,000 other concerns.
“My vision for city government is this: by being brilliant at the basics, we will lead a responsible, efficient government that enables all of the good things going on in Memphis to multiply,” Mayor Jim Strickland stated during his budget address in April.
City priorities outlined by the mayor's platform establish a vision of the type of city Memphis aspires to become: a city run by an efficient government, and one without litter, blight or crime. It's the CIO's job, Nair said, to keep those objectives in mind during daily operations and the implementation of projects like this one.
"[State and local CIOs] are still in the boat where we've got budget seasons, we're competing — like everyone else — against other priorities, whether it be pension crisis or large technology uplifts that you have to do because of maybe in-car dash-cam videos or the obsolescence of a radio frequency set like most municipalities are going to get hit with," Nair said. "I keep striving to look at how to help people in efficient manners."
Connecting technology with a city's high-level vision for the future is sound governance, but it can also be overwhelming. Cities face challenges that at times seem impossible — unemployment, pollution, homelessness. As optimistic as many public sector technologists can be, some also see these problems and say something like, "I'm just a CIO — what can I do?"
The CIO's job isn't to solve those problems outright, Nair said, but to figure out where he fits into the puzzle.
"When Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall said, 'Look, we're going to defeat Hitler,' you know, that's overwhelming," he said. "But what they did is they took that overall vision and broke that down into different strategies and tactics that they employed and that's what we have to do as the CIO.
"I can't end homelessness. But what I can do as the CIO is I could say, 'OK, but maybe there's a technology or maybe there's a process or maybe I could link those who provide services to the homeless in my area and I could put the information on a website, maybe we have some public kiosks that are available at our libraries or our community centers that the homeless can come in and look at.' Maybe the people who work at our 211 or other information services, they can pull up the information that I can present to them readily. I'm not going to end the whole problem that way, but I'll be able to take a bite of the elephant."
Editor's note: This article was updated on Jan. 6 to include a quote from the mayor.