Features

Bill Greeves – Wake County, North Carolina

In a digital county with an eye for innovation, pragmatism counts

From the standpoint of organization and funding alone, local governance can seem impossible. After all, towns and cities tackle everything from running public schools and maintaining transportation systems to creating landfills. But somehow, every county finds solutions, and increasingly, many of the solutions are based in technology.

Case in point? Wake County, North Carolina.

With more than a million residents, it’s one of the fastest growing areas in the nation. According to chief information and innovation officer to Wake County, Bill Greeves, “a kindergarten class is born [here] every single day.”

Through technology changes and pragmatism, Wake County is improving processes like internal communication, data access and budgetary constrictions that can make governing so hard. In fact, Greeves says the problems of local governance aren’t so overwhelming when you consider some of the solutions currently employed in Wake County.

Bill Greeves, Wake County

Bill Greeves

In local government, these solutions do not always require a new device or software for each new problem, Greeves says. “[It] doesn’t mean necessarily that you have to buy something off the shelf or build a new system. Sometimes it’s just changing the way the process works,” he says. In fact, a major part of his job is being practical.

A new position, but also a shifting role

Since Greeves joined Wake County as CIO in 2012, he has seen the relationship between technology and government shift, both in Wake County and in other parts of America. In the past, an IT department was responsible for basic technology upkeep, such as network security, dial tone and printing paychecks. Today, the role is much broader. Instead of being gatekeepers, technologists are expected to identify the problems affecting the county and, in turn, offer solutions.

When Greeves joined Wake County four years ago, one of his first solutions was to work with departments to consolidate procurements of major technology systems. By making single larger systems available to all the departments, the county created more consistency between departments and reduced costs by negotiating a better deal with a single provider.

By encouraging a holistic view, Greeves has helped the county in other ways that relate to technology but are also practical changes. For example, one department may be experiencing a problem another department struggled with six months ago. This way, says Greeves, departments can share “the horror stories they had in implementing [these new system] so [we] can avoid them.”

Greeves says his title as innovation officer in addition to the CIO title does not mean he is in charge of all innovation in Wake County. “What [this] means is finding the best ways and the best support structure to encourage innovation across the board,” he says. Instead of telling departments where and how they need to improve, Greeves simply provides the tools, space and encouragement for people to be creative and make changes to the processes that they already know.

Through technology, transparency

Balancing the needs of so many departments is a challenge. In order to stay effective, Greeves and the rest of the IT department must constantly be on the lookout for ways new technologies could improve the county. “We also consider our vendors to be partners in our success. For those that deliver on our expectations, we develop long-term relationships that enable us to share in their talents in expertise in serving our citizens.”

One recent development is an open data portal that shares content with the city of Raleigh and the neighboring town of Cary. This open portal allows citizens free access to information about the county and its services. Wake County also plays a major role in a consolidated regional 911 center. By using one system for emergency calls, the county has again saved money, but more importantly, has improved response time and increased communication between first responders.

“Trying to keep up with all of this definitely keeps us busy,” says Greeves. “But it’s a lot of fun because you’re learning new things every day, shifting areas of focus and learning lots of details about things you may have never given much thought to before.”

As Wake County has become more dependent on technology, it has also become more vulnerable.

Information security is a major role for the IT department. Greeves says the department must always be aware of this “constant dark shadow” every time it tries something new, like putting email in cloud storage or attaching sensors to county vehicles to improve efficiency.

But as the county continues to grow, Greeves is confident his team will manage these risks.

A tech culture lends to a tech-savvy workforce

Wake County’s tech-savvy workforce comes from a “very technology literate” community, says Greeves. Looking out of his office window, Greeves says he can see the Red Hat world headquarters, and the county is full of major technology corporations such as SAS, IBM, Citrix and Lenovo. This community attracts “highly qualified technology candidates if we have a vacancy,” he says.

Another advantage of the tech-saturated community is the way the county government is able to engage with companies and residents to solve problems.

Greeves is able to share civic issues and information with CIOs, both in private and public sectors of the tech industry, because they are “not in competition with one another [so] you can share information and get feedback,” he says. This ability to communicate can mean faster and more innovative solutions.

For example, “say we want to find innovative ways to attack hunger in the community,” says Greeves. “There are obviously community partners that we would want to get involved in that, such as food banks, faith-based organizations and anyone else related to the issue.”

The County also actively participates in civic tech opportunities like hack-a-thons and data jams, which are focused on improving the community via high-tech volunteerism.

Wake County has been nationally recognized for its efforts to use technology. In 2016, the Center for Digital Government awarded Wake County first prize in its annual digital survey. This award celebrates counties that recognize the value of technology in the public sector and put it to the best use.

“There is a lot of collaboration amongst government across the board. In fact, that is one of my favorite parts of [working in] government,” says Greeves.

Greeves says the award was a “great recognition” for his team, but that the real value of the award is the way it highlights, in all of the winners, the best that government has to offer. The program focuses on innovative programs and solutions, and most governments are happy to share.

“There is a lot of collaboration amongst government across the board. In fact, that is one of my favorite parts of [working in] government,” says Greeves.

At the beginning of his career, Greeves worked in non-profits as a technical writer and project manager. He made the switch to the public sector in 2000 when he took a job as the city webmaster for Virginia Beach, Virginia. What hooked him on public service, particularly local public service, is being able to see the results of his efforts. “I’m seeing the stuff we’re doing helping people in our own neighborhoods, every day” says Greeves.

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