Phil Bertolini, Oakland County deputy executive and chief information officer, recently accepted a Champions of Change award from the White House on behalf of the county for its work in shared services and innovation in providing those services. Appointed to his current position by county Executive L. Brooks Patterson nearly 8 years ago, Bertolini is the former director of the Information Technology Department who began his career in county government with the Equalization Division in 1988. A graduate of Michigan State University, he lives in Oakland County with his wife and two children.
In September, you accepted an award from the White House for some of the work that has been going on in the county, specifically what has been happening in the IT Department, called the Champions of Change. Can you give us a recap of what the Champions of Change was about and some of the work that was recognized by the White House?
PB: The White House’s Champions of Change Award was presented to me and our team here at Oakland County because of the work that we are doing in shared services and innovation for local government. What that means is we’ve been taking a number of our shared technologies, under the leadership of county Executive L. Brooks Patterson, and we’ve been taking those initiatives and making them available for other governments to use.
Many people talk about why small governments don’t use big technologies. Because they can’t afford the capital expense and they can’t afford the ongoing operating expense. What we are doing is making those technologies available at a much lower cost.
Oakland County has been providing shared technology services for over 40 years, and that started with our law enforcement systems and our assessment and tax systems. We get it. We understand the model. By positioning into these technologies into our “G2G” cloud solutions, or what we call government-to-government cloud solutions, we are making them available to even more governments, even outside the borders of Oakland County. The shared services model and the G2G model are to provide these technologies and leverage the cost of these technologies to a wider base of users, thus lowering that cost.
Our initial products have been our online payments, where we take online payments for just about anything you need to take them for in government. And also, our Web suite, which allows governments that don’t have the ability to or don’t have a robust Web presence to be able to build a Web presence, have it hosted externally to them, manage their own content and then also incorporate an online payment engine to go ahead and take the payments necessary — whether that be fees and fines, registration fees, or whatever they may be, they can go ahead and do that.
We are excited about the project because we are unique in government in providing this kind of technology and this kind of system, and being recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change was quite an honor. I was able to attend the event. I was able to present the technologies. I had to give a presentation that was about 20 slides — it was incredible. And I was able to then present the technologies and everything I needed to present. So, it was exciting and it was quite an honor.
Are these technologies shared mainly throughout the county, or are they shared outside the county, the state or other places?
PB: These were shared technologies that really are for both. We leverage technologies horizontally throughout all of county government. Our Deputy County Executive Bob Daddow many years ago was working on initiatives here at IT. He was looking horizontally across county government — we have 82 divisions and departments of county government.
Then we looked vertically, either down into local government or even up with state government to see if we had some shared-services capabilities or services that we can provide at multiple levels. We’ve been doing that for quite some time. So, the G2G cloud works not only horizontally across county government but vertically into local governments, but it’s also now outside of our county’s borders. So, we have other counties that are looking to use and are actually contracted with us to use some of those technologies. Then we have other courts, we have district courts and some other county governments, so they aren’t necessarily inside our footprint of our 910 square miles. But we still have other shared services that go across the region as well, which is our Courts Law Enforcement Management Information System (CLEMIS), which is a region-wide law enforcement system. So, we have a reputation in the region for providing technology, so to put our technologies into this cloud effort, we have already had the ability to get to some of those outside entities. We’ve even had some interest from out of state, so we are talking to those folks about what the possibilities are.
The county executive, he wants us to provide as many services as we can in the shared services model because that is a way to reinvent government and change the way we fund government technologies and fund government services.
Oakland County has been on the cutting edge of technology for a while. In fact the county some years ago was looking into a county-wide wireless system before many people knew what that was or there was a demand. Where do you see it going in the next 10 years, and where are we at in terms of technology and sharing, and where are we heading?
PB: That’s an interesting concept of where all of this is going to go. When you look at the restricted revenue that government has today and you look at the fact that taxes are not going to recover to 2007 levels until — it could be 15 years before that happens. So, what are we going to do with government to be able to manage costs and change the ways we do business?
Shared technologies and shared services are the way we are going to be able to do that. Not every service is a technology service, and we share services here at the county in law enforcement, assessment and taxes for a number of local units in the county, but technologies are the enabling tools that allow people to provide services to the citizens. If you have less human resources, which is what happens when revenues drop, then you have less people to perform the job. How are you going to do that?
You are going to need enabling technologies. By sharing these technologies across multiple levels of government, you drive the cost of doing that down. So, hopefully, what we have then is this shared service that has a leveraged cost across multiple entities. We have a larger government, like Oakland, that is able to provide them, and then that is a win to everyone. It’s a win to Oakland and provides a bit of a revenue stream that offsets the cost of doing business. The benefit to smaller government is that they get a technology that they wouldn’t have necessarily been able to use at a lower cost.
Is this the philosophy of “Build it once, pay for it once, and everyone benefits?”
PB: You bet. So we build it one time and we leverage it across everybody. You pay for it one time and get the benefit out to everyone. That’s exactly what we are talking about. Brooks has talked about where the county is going to be 10 years from now and where the county is going to be 20 years from now. So, he has a vision of where we are going to be longer term. To operationalize that vision, we have to have the tools to do that. He has empowered us to go forward and build what we can, share what we can, and then get the benefit to every level of government.
As far as sharing, there have always been some issues with the three counties (Oakland, Wayne and Macomb). Is that something we are going to be able to go past, or is it going to hinder us in the future?
PB: There have been times when people say, “Hey, we don’t want to share, let’s keep this to ourselves.” Is there some sort of economic benefit of doing that? We’ve been sharing services for so long that we don’t see it that way. Shared services are the future of government. So I believe whatever roadblocks there were in the past, or whatever impediments there were in the past, I think those are going to break down, and break down quick.
We are already working with our partners here in the region, talking about what services we can share. We’ve been talking about those services for quite some time, but now with the revenue reductions you have in government, it almost brings more people to the table than can necessarily be at the table. And let’s be fair, Oakland has always been — much to Brooks’ credit and everyone else — we’ve been looked at as a leader in some of the services we provide, but not everyone is always willing to participate in that because the image of, “Is Oakland taking over?” Or, “Is this just the rich county helping those that might not be as wealthy?”
Rich, poor, it doesn’t matter. It’s about lowering the cost of government. And if we can keep that in our forefront and if we can keep that pointed straight ahead of us, then lowering the cost is real.
Is there anything you wanted to add about some of the things going on at the county?
PB: Our county is advancing. It is evolving. Brooks has a vision of where he wants the county to go, and he knows that 10 or 20 years from now, he may not be county executive. He realizes that we still have to achieve those goals. In other words, work now, build our foundation now, and enhance programs today that will benefit us all in the long-term.
If you look at what he has done economic development-wise, he started Automation Alley in 1997. It’s now one of the largest high-tech consortia in the Midwest. He started Emerging Sectors in 2004, and it has grown 26,000 jobs and $2 billion in economic impact. He started Medical Main Street about a year-and-a-half ago or so to rebrand the region. He knows that when these projects really start to take off and go forward, it could be down the road a way. That’s the kind of vision we need. And we need that vision in technology and in every service that we provide in government, because if we don’t look down the road, we will always be chasing our tail. The economy will always have issues. And we will always be chasing our tail because we weren’t ready if we don’t do what we are doing here in Oakland County, and that’s providing the foundation for success and building on programs as they grow over the years.
So, I feel blessed to work for Oakland County, and I feel blessed to work for a visionary like L. Brooks Patterson, and I look forward to where we are going to be in the next 10 years because I think we are going to just get that much better and grow that much faster and evolve. It’s an exciting time for us in government and it’s an exciting time to lead.