Meet the 2021 Local IT Leader of the Year winners

StateScoop continues its coverage of the 2021 LocalSmart Awards by sharing interviews with winners in the Local IT Leader of the Year category.

City and county officials from around the country shared what they’ve been working on, what they think others in government — especially those who don’t work directly in technology — should be aware of and what’s on the horizon in 2022.

Reporting by Colin Wood. Responses were edited for length and clarity.

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Debra Buckner, treasurer and tax collector, Pulaski County, Arkansas

Debra Buckner, treasurer and tax collector, Pulaski County, Arkansas

I understand you had a recent victory. What happened?

The mother of invention is desperation, and with COVID in a public office, we support 400,000 people here. After closing last year, we really just had some head-scratching ideas. We called three of our lead banks, and the innovative result of all this was that Centennial Bank said, “We don’t have a vacant building, but if we can do the plexiglass and the separate till and have your staff on one side and our staff on the other, we’ll give you a drive-through lane.” We sent our technology guys out immediately to look at Wi-Fi and spacing and security and we deployed our staff to go take payments from a drive-though lane at a bank. And it was enormously successful. The public loved it.

Did you do it again this year?

We asked if we could come back and our tax season is in October, and we actually added a branch for another area of town that wasn’t being serviced. For the bank, they get their public-private partnership kudos, they get their community service satisfied, and we are in the community and greeting people. We took in $15 million in four locations from Sept. 7 up to Oct. 15. So it was a win-win-win for everyone.

How about for next year?

Well obviously we don’t know what COVID’s going to do with quarantining or the delta variant, so we’re a little bit tap-dancing through health challenges. But we think that we’ll be invited back. There’s been excruciatingly strong security walls from the bank aspect. We are their guest — we are not paying for the air conditioning and the heating and the electric and the bathroom. They have invited us in as a courtesy. This may be a wave of the future.

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Nick Lucius, chief data officer, Chicago

Nick Lucius, chief data officer, Chicago

What have you accomplished in your role that you want people to know about?

Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot has asked us to bake equity into everything that we do as a government. It’s a big part of how I look at how we’re using data. One big example of that was early on in COVID, when data was coming on COVID tests and we were managing a public health pandemic, the mayor was very adamant to make sure that race, age and data were collected along with all that data coming in from the testing labs. This led to Chicago becoming the first city to release data on how the pandemic was affecting different races, and that’s what sparked a national conversation on how the COVID disease was affecting the Black population in drastically different ways.

What’s something about data and analytics that you think other people in government should know about, especially non-technical folks?

That the hardest part of it is not a technical problem. The hardest part of data and analytics is thinking through the problem that you’re trying to solve and really understanding what you’re going to do once you get the answers you’re looking for. What are you going to do next and how is that going to change something for the better? How’s it going to save you money, how’s it going to help you take your current workforce or do more or change outcomes for people who have historically been disadvantaged? Because if you’re not making sure you have an outcome you’re trying to achieve, you’re just doing data analysis for data analysis’s sake.

What’s your prediction for 2022?

That anybody that has one is making it up. I will add one thing. My prediction for 2022 is that people who work in data are just going to see themselves even more at the forefront of the conversation in business and in government than ever before. I know we’ve been saying this for years now, but I saw an acceleration over the past year and I really only see it going in one direction and that’s leaders needing to get more answers to understand how to solve the problems that they have.

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TJ Mayotte, deputy CIO, Howard County, Maryland

TJ Mayotte, deputy CIO, Howard County, Maryland

What have you accomplished in your role that you want people to know about?

We have begun an initiative called Transform Howard and it brings together all of our digital equity, inclusion and transformational projects and programs. We’ve done things like expand access to public Wi-Fi, increased the amount of broadband service that all our schools provided by the county, which is pretty unusual. We provided devices, and now we’re looking at how to get training and digital navigators to our residents. That’s been a primary focus above and beyond what a typical local government IT department does that we’re really proud of here.

As someone who works in technology, is there anything you want other people in government, who are less technical, to be aware of?

My typical quote here is that IT is an enabling function and we’re here to help everyone else meet their business goals. A lot of times it’s just reaching out and articulating what you need to do, and we’ll backfill in the technological solution that you need. The other part of that is our residents. Pretty much everyone has pretty high expectations of the level of digital service that they receive everywhere, including government, and we’re here to enable that.

What’s your prediction for 2022?

It can’t get much worse, right? The more positive way of putting it is that 2022 is going to be a time of opportunity between the level of federal funding that’s coming, and as we come out of the pandemic, it’s really an opportunity for us to take the lessons learned over the past 18 months and apply them in more positive and sustainable directions.

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Kat Hartman, director of data strategy and analytics, Detroit

Kat Hartman, director of data strategy and analytics, Detroit

What have you accomplished in your role that you want people to know about?

The thing that I am most excited about is establishing better data governance over our geospatial data sets. We have taken to calling them affectionately the base units. All the core, unique IDs that are used to connect geospatial data sets together, so you might think of it as an address or a street, but we think of it as many, many extra layers to that. Not only is there a street address, but there is the unit address, the parcel, the building footprint, all of the above go into describing something as simple as a street address. And there’s sort of a similar taxonomy for what we’re calling the right of way, what happens in between the land.

What’s something about data and analytics that you think other people in government should know about, especially non-technical folks?

I actually went to art school, so I am coming at this from a storytelling/visual-design lens. I am really interested in how do you get people understanding the value of data? One of the key ways I approach that is by helping folks tell stories with data, that they need to get out there, how to talk about data in a way that speaks to specific departmental needs. Often there’s a visual component to that.

What’s your 2022 prediction?

The City of Detroit is going to be tackling a lot of projects that were sort of dream projects. We’re going to be tackling them a lot sooner as a direct result of our American Rescue Plan Act. I’m really excited about all of the transformational work we’re going to be able to do with that funding.

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Scott Zufelt, deputy director of the Office of Analytics, Pima County, Arizona

Scott Zufelt, deputy director of the Office of Analytics, Pima County, Arizona

What have you accomplished in your role that you want people to know about?

We are a new department with Pima county, so we have brought data to the forefront of the decision-making process. So instead of using data in hindsight to back up our decisions, we’re trying to bring data to the forefront so that you would use the data, analyze it and then make informed decisions. That has been really good for us. The latest thing that we’ve done is we’ve finished our migration to Power BI in the cloud.

What’s something about data analytics that you think other people in government should know about, especially non-technical folks?

Data can be a great ally. They should be able to find the information that they need and have it at their fingertips, and they shouldn’t be afraid to see what the data actually tells them.

What’s your prediction for 2022?

I think 2022 will be a year of change for us. Following the years that we’ve had, we’re hoping that COVID becomes less of a factor in our daily lives and we can really get back to doing what we do best, and that is serving our constituents.

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