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Digital transformation equips Atlanta government to deal with current crisis

The government of Atlanta, GA has been through an incredible transformation journey in a short amount of time.

Since the cyberattack in March 2018 breached the City’s network and brought down many of the departments’ systems and digital services, major improvements have been implemented. The first major change was hiring Gary Brantley in June 2018 to join the Atlanta City Government as their Chief Information Officer.

OpenGov recently had the opportunity to speak with CIO Gary Brantley to discuss the City’s transformation and how past crisis have helped them handle the current crisis the world is facing – COVID-19.

Government lessons learned from past crisis

Gary said he has gone from dealing with “a virtual virus to a human virus,” but the past attack has put the City in a good position to deal with the situation they are now in.

When speaking about the past cyberattack on the City, Gary said the crisis brought outstanding issues to the forefront. They knew legacy systems needed to be updated or replaced, security needed to be tightened and people needed to be on board for change.

“I knew once the City had gone through what they had gone through, they were going to be ready for transformation to take place. We knew we would be forced to use technologies in the City that would better protect us and allow us to be more efficient.”

The cyberattack helped make the business case for upgrading IT infrastructure, strengthening security, and addressing the vulnerabilities in the system.

The cyberattack not only brought about digital transformation, it also helped bring transformation in people and culture. It gave leadership insights into employees that embraced change and who were ready for transformation.

Moving on from the past crisis to the current crisis Gary told us, “the city was already extremely prepared for a crisis from an IT perspective. We have already been involved in one, even though it was an attack. We were also in a position where we wanted to become a more agile organization, so we started to implement a lot of cloud-based technologies. Also, we started to see what types of platforms we already had that we could modernise.”

“As we started to move forward, we started to really collapse a lot of technology that wasn’t being used; it wasn’t needed. We also started to make a shift to move applications that to the cloud. So, when [COVID-19] hit, we instantly jumped into our business continuity plan and were agile.”

Gary added, “We started really focusing on our ability to continue to operate and shift quickly, if any type of crisis were to happen. This is the type of thinking and planning my staff and I really started to focus on, which is why I think having that attack prepared us for a second virus.”

Digital Transformation gives Government advantage during current crisis

Atlanta’s digital transformation has meant that they have been able to put systems and processes in place so they can function during a crisis, which has been particularly useful with this pandemic. As soon as the outbreak hit the U.S., Atlanta was able to get to work straight away.

“During the first week of March, we were one of, if not the first city to conduct a virtual City Council meeting, which went extremely well. We used a virtual desktop deployment and it allowed each of our council members and also our staff to be able to log in from their homes and have access to the same technology they would at the board meeting.”

“This meant they could vote and see the legislation electronically. That legislation was put on the Internet and TV stations for the public to stay informed. We also had a forum for the public to be able to call in with any questions and get responses from City Council at a later date.”

Even in periods of lockdown, this is not seen to be a huge problem for the Atlanta Government, they already had a flexible, agile work policy in place.

“You have people working at home, you have different environments, you have systems in place from a government perspective that weren’t necessarily put in place to host an entire City working remotely. Having that process in place, early on, has really been incredible for us. I think that is why we’ve been able to make a quick shift.”

“We were interested in bringing all of our front-facing applications for employees in house, behind firewalls, because our intranet really didn’t have the security that was needed and it was also compromised during the cyber-attack. We have been developing the in-house, cloud-ready application we now use. What ends up happening with that effort is we have an area where all of our telework applications are like a one-stop-shop for individuals to access their enterprise technology applications.”

“From a technology perspective, when we introduced our leave about two weeks ago, it was already in flight due to what happened during the ransomware event, so when the [COVID-19 outbreak] happened, we had to speed it up.”

“One of the things we struggled with was from a mobility perspective. We didn’t have enough mobile devices on hand for City employees to work at home, once we shut down City Hall. We were able to turn around thousands of devices within a week and a half, configure for each department, set up remote employee computers, imaged the computers onsite and deliver them to employees, which was something new. We also ensured we had a secondary computing solution in place.”

“The City also recently went live with the ERP Oracle platform, probably one of the most forward-facing ERP systems. We were the first government institution in the United States to go fully cloud-based on our finance and HR systems.”

Gary went on to say, “About a week and a half ago, I never thought the City would go completely paperless on its contracts and its legislation. One piece of legislation can be almost 200 pages of paper. To be able to implement this in a four-day time frame is amazing. Before this attack, it would have taken me two years just for one Department.”

“The digital transformations that we’re doing are huge, and it shows you how government can really move when they get up and make these types of changes.”

Gary said, “we are now really looking at areas where we can advance the city quickly where we’re needed. We go back to the cyberattack a little bit to give us a bird’s eye view of what happened. Coming out on the other side of this, as a City, we’re going to be much further ahead.”

One of the projects Gary is most proud of is the undertaking of segmenting the entire City network, which was never segmented before, to put in close to 100 pieces of equipment and a number of firewalls to really secure each environment.

“Upgrading the firewalls is something the people will not see but has put the City in a position whereby the things we put in place will outlive my leadership. Setting up a security program is just one of one those things that will pay dividends in the long run.”

Future planning and business continuity post COVID-19

Going forward post-COVID-19, there has been a new focus on remote working globally. From the Atlanta City Government perspective, Gary has said, “We are looking at and studying this to see it from an employee’s side of things; and if the City can continue to be sustained, we’re looking to cut costs, save money on leases, and save our employees’ money on expenses for parking and gas.

He will also be looking to make working for organizations that can’t compete with private organizations a lot more attractive for prospects to want to come work for a government entity.

In terms of future planning and business continuity after COVID-19 recedes and ‘normal’ work restarts, Gary has put in place a task force on his team, to see from an IT infrastructure architecture perspective, what telework looks like for the city.

“I want that done by the time we walk out of this, I want to know that the infrastructure is in place, the architecture has been reviewed, the security is there and the telework platform is solid, so we can truly say we are a city that has everything in place for Telework.”

Transformational Insight for Leaders

Gary is also the author of “The Art of Organizational Transformation: 7 Steps to Impact & Influence,” and details his takeaways from being involved in multiple transformation projects.

“I wrote the seven most critical areas which I feel affect transformation. A lot of people focus on digital transformation now, but there’s a huge people and culture component that, in my opinion, allowed me to be successful. It wasn’t because of the technology I used to do it, it was my ability to foster relationships, my ability to work and change the culture.”

“I decided to put the book out now so maybe some leaders, young leaders especially, can take a look at this and understand that getting to this side of things wasn’t always easy. I talk about a lot of areas most people wouldn’t see, areas of hurt and pain going through this.”

When asked if he had any advice for CIOs he said, “No matter how innovative you want to get within an organization, no matter how shining and attractive different types of technology are, as a leader, you still have to keep the focus on the basic fundamental reason as to why you’re there.

One of the things I would say is, “Never forget the basics, always understand the foundational components of your organization, why you’re there. I think this goes for any leader.”

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