St. Louis County, Missouri
It’s just a fact of life in the public sector, muses Rick Nolle. Infotech often lags behind the far more up-to-date versions that are par for the course in the private sector, resulting in at least some dissatisfied customers who just so happen to be taxpayers.
But that’s becoming less and less the case in St. Louis County, Missouri, where Nolle has served as chief information officer since February 2017, after plying his technical skills for St. Louis businesses since the early 1980s.
“The leader here saw the need to revitalize county government’s technology,” Nolle says, in reference to Steve Stenger, the forward-thinking county executive who may have heard complaints about the old IT system in his five years as a Sixth District councilman. “He is responsible for bringing me on board and elevating the CIO to a cabinet-level position.”
There’s a lot of catching up to do, Nolle says, but in less than a year-and-a-half, they’ve made remarkable strides, with more to come.
Wired to communicate
“Technology can be the easy part,” Nolle tells Toggle in mid-May from his office in St. Louis. “It’s the art of communication—going out and listening to people and getting the technology aligned with our strategic vision. That’s the key.”
His ear to the ground, Nolle often hears about the need for better online services, as more and more folks would rather not have to set aside time during normal working hours to travel to a county building to tend to matters that could be done with a few strokes on a computer or smartphone keypad. By enhancing the IT staff with capable people from the private sector, and building a group of IT business managers around the units served, Nolle has put a more collaborative and transparent operation in place, with a five-year plan that prioritizes a few critical functions.
There’s the new 311 line, developed by Technology Partners, a Women Business Enterprise-certified company whose Gateway app connects county residents with information and non-urgent services, streamlining access and putting everything at their fingertips. Available at the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store, it’s free to download.
“We are passionate about moving the needle forward for not only St. Louis, but our entire region and technology is one way to do that,” says Technology Partners CEO Lisa Nichols. “When Rick and the team selected us as their primary developer on the new app, we were thrilled. This is such a cool project that will dramatically improve the citizen experience.”
With World Wide Technologies, another local strategic partner, the county’s antiquated IT Service Management (ITSM) also was replaced ahead of schedule and below cost.
“It was impressive how quickly the service platforms scaled up and were ready for production,” Nolle marvels. “With many technology projects, the time and money extend beyond initial plans while the benefits take longer to achieve.”
Now the county is considering the ServiceNow platform for other areas such as risk management and transportation.
Another strategic partner, Cisco Systems Inc., is proving its worth on the Smart Community front, leveraging dark fiber throughout the county for the benefit of what have been underserved areas.
“We looked at transportation fiber that runs beneath all major roads across the county, and realized that we have a $15 million asset already in the ground,” Nolle says.
“That’s a 10-year project that will bring benefits in terms of public safety, IOT (Internet of Things), monitors and sensors. We’re also finding value in leveraging other similar projects that Cisco has been part of, as well as its various grant programs that make these public service projects less costly.”
Then there’s a more streamlined permitting portal that should ease the headaches of companies seeking to build in St. Louis County. Developers and architects have long complained about obstacles to building, Nolle says, adding that the new automated system will bridge the complexities of submitting plans, blueprints, and scheduling inspections.
Nolle’s local roots may also pay dividends to the county.
A St. Louis native who earned a BS in computer science from St. Louis University and an Executive MBA from Washington University, also in St. Louis, he built an impressive resume, handling IT for the financial, technological, insurance and consulting industries. Prior to joining St. Louis County, he had been chief information officer at First Banks, the largest regional bank that’s based in St. Louis. His first experience in leading IT for a major company was an 11-year stint with Reinsurance Group of America where he won awards such as Premier 100 IT Leader and Executive of the Year for his innovative leadership.
No novice at networking
Being such a known person opens a lot of doors, he says, adding that his many personal and professional relationships have figured in the Smart Community programs. As to why he left the private sector, Nolle says that two decades of corporate IT leadership roles afforded him the opportunity to give back in the form of public service.
Being a “high-tech evangelist” is plenty rewarding as well, he says. Especially when it offers the chance to impact his home turf with the principles gleaned from a productive career in private businesses.
“In the private sector, you innovate or you die,” says Nolle, a young 58. “You’ve seen the shift in banking going from tellers to ATMs to web and mobile operations, negating the need for branches and the physical presence. This hasn’t happened as much in the public sector, with people still answering phones and working across the counter. To best serve the public, we have to recognize changes in the way people use technology and adapt accordingly.”
That said, he notes there are some factors that can ease the task of upgrading public sector IT, one being the willingness of other communities to share what private companies might deem secrets of success. No such rivalries exist among governments, Nolle has found, adding that he often brainstorms with public sector IT officers elsewhere to the benefit of all.
“One of my peers says ‘use your eyes and plagiarize,’” Nolle says with a chuckle. “You can do that in the public sector.”
CIOs in the public sector tend to be kindred spirits, likely to have much in common, including a frustration with often having to make do with yesterday’s technology. That may have been especially true in St. Louis County.
“From networking with my peers, my conclusion is the best of the public sector is 10 years behind the private sector,” Nolle says. “And under previous St. Louis County leadership, we were 10 years behind the best of the best of the public sector.”
But with a supportive county executive in Stenger, and Nolle having assembled a stronger IT staff that’s bolstered by such partners as World Wide Technology and Cisco, St. Louis County is catching up and poised to move ahead.
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