Keeping Portland Wired

In the public sector, there is always more to improve, especially when it comes to technology. Ben Berry explains how he created a focused technology agenda for the City of Portland that gives the metropolis a clear way forward.

Doing Less With More

Talk to any IT professional in the business world and you’re likely to hear glowing reports of successful project implementations, widespread technology upgrades, and forecasts about the rise of enterprise solutions, big data, enhanced mobility, and cloud storage. Companies from large to small are harnessing these new tools to improve operations and reduce costs. But what about the public sector? Can CTOs in state and local systems navigate the red tape of bureaucracy and leverage best practices in an era of budget cuts and uncertainty?

Consider, for example, one West Coast metropolis. With a population of more than 600,000, Portland is the largest city in Oregon and the twenty-ninth most populous in the union. Its Bureau of Technology Services (BTS), comprised of 230 workers, is responsible for supporting 6,000 customers spread over the city’s twenty-nine bureaus. Leading that group is CTO Ben Berry. He is charged with what seems an impossible task: improving the city’s technology infrastructure and meeting increased demands for IT innovations without breaking the bank.


Bureaus in the city government, which were consolidated into five communities of interest to leverage IT resources and services


Desktops moved to the cloud in an effort to modernize software tools


Amount processed via the city’s payment gateway, necessitating a revamped information-security plan to avoid fraud

The challenge doesn’t intimidate Berry, who learned the value of hard work from his parents. Berry’s father was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II who later joined the Apollo space program. Berry remembers sitting in the car with his sister while his parents attended night school. His mother became a schoolteacher; his father, the president of an engineering society. When Berry was fourteen, he accompanied his father to work, where he encountered a room filled with tape-mounted devices connected to a mainframe—it was the first time Berry laid eyes on a computer. “I was mesmerized,” he recalls. “I never forgot that moment, and that experience led me into technology and aerospace, but moreover, it gave me the focus to learn and to be inquisitive.”

Berry started his career as a network services supervisor at AT&T in 1972 and has spent the last forty-three years in roles of increasing importance in health care, defense, government, and telecommunications. After serving on the city’s technology oversight committee for thirteen months, he applied for and accepted the CTO position in January 2013. His first move was to hire a consulting company to help him review and analyze Portland’s technology needs. “It’s important for a new leader to know what he or she has,” he says. The citywide assessment allowed Berry to zero in on the city’s use of hardware, software, technology processes, and IT talent. He then met with each of Portland’s twenty-nine bureau directors and their teams to discuss IT capabilities and desires. The citywide technology assessment yielded seventy-one recommendations that Berry then pared down to ten points for presentation to the City Council.

The Vision For A New City

Perhaps one of the most integral ideas to Berry’s plan is the IT governance consolidation of Portland’s twenty-nine bureaus into five “communities of interest”—wherein services can be consolidated, streamlined, and leveraged for greater effect. “The public sector often has many divisions that all cut their own deals in a structure that brings waste because there is little sharing of data, applications, or systems,” Berry says. In his plan, similar bureaus form communities of interest such as public safety, which contains fire, police, emergency communications, and emergency management. The community of interest model helps BTS enhance its IT governance structure for decision making.

Another tenet of Berry’s plan that deals with organizational structure compliments consolidation. Previously, twelve division managers reported to the CTO; now, six of those report to a deputy. Then, the office developed the Center for Strategy and Innovation to combine customer-relationship management and enterprise-architecture teams.

After meeting with bureau leaders and other officials, Berry started to piece together a vision for moving BTS and the city into the future. However, he noticed a gap between planned tech initiatives and the skills of existing employees. Berry ramped up IT skills-training efforts by holding firm on training budgets. “We can’t put into place the right IT processes, programs, and applications to support our customers without equipping those within our bureau properly,” he says. Berry
restored training dollars cut in the recession and included training budgets within approved projects.

Several other items Berry has presented to the city council addressed ways for Portland to maximize value without dramatically increasing costs. When the plan goes through, BTS will move a data center off-site, migrate customers away from a mainframe, migrate large applications from bureaus to systems applications products where applicable, and save $1 million per year by executing on enterprise architecture. “City government is like having a hundred businesses under the same roof,” Berry says. “It’s complicated, and you can’t find the benefits that exist until you peel back the structure.”

Lastly, BTS plans to replace some outdated software and reallocate funds. When Berry arrived on the scene in 2013, the city was still using Microsoft Office 2003. He’s taken customers to Office365 by migrating 4,150 desktops to the cloud. In phase two, teams will implement SharePoint and a host of smaller functions. Berry’s office will also address a need for more spending in information security. Enhanced security to protect funds and uncover fraud is key, as Portland’s payment gateway moves about $200 million per year.

Berry’s Blueprint

The far-reaching proposal may seem lofty, but Berry says it’s actually a simple blueprint. “We’re trying to optimize the resources that the City of Portland uses in IT,” he explains. “This strategy will help us get more value out of our teams, budgets, and processes that we have and bring us into the twenty-first century.” Like private companies, public entities were hit hard by the recession. Now, they are racing to find modern and innovative ways to recover.

Berry, with his experience in public, private, and nonprofit roles, says that each area brings its own challenges, and life in the public sector brings many benefits. Berry’s ideas are based on direct input from customers and citizens. By the time he presented the final ten initiatives to bureau directors, they liked what they saw. “I used a classic approach to walk through each stage and build the support I needed prior to approval,” he says. After getting bureau directors on board, he met to convince commissioners, the mayor, and ultimately, the city council. Berry’s plan got the go-ahead in March 2014, and he is currently navigating the financial challenges to implement as many steps as possible. The key, he says, lies in prioritization. Few public leaders get all the resources they want, but those who direct funds judiciously can add value and deliver on commitments.

Future changes should also have a positive impact on city residents. “We were often forcing people through multiple steps because we couldn’t integrate data well . . . but that’s changing,” says Berry, who adds that taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund work done in silos. Shared systems and applications will allow the new communities of interest to share information and provide speed, accuracy, and convenience.