When Craig Patterson stepped in as acting IT manager for the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority in early 2015, he was expected to deploy technology that could help the housing authority better respond to the needs of the community it serves.
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Although that's hardly a unique mandate, especially today when business is expected to move at the speed of a smartphone app, Patterson said he knew the existing infrastructure wasn't up to the task.
He ticked off the problems: outdated systems and servers that were starting to fail, software applications so old that vendors no longer supported them, and a two-person IT staff without the skills needed to implement upgrades.
As a result, Patterson said the housing authority couldn't move forward with the tech-driven initiatives that are revolutionizing other organizations (for-profits and nonprofits alike) -- for example, enabling a mobile workforce and using workplace analytics to improve productivity.
Selling scalability of cloud
So his No. 1 task shifted. Instead of focusing on new initiatives first, Patterson sought to rip out the old on-premises servers and systems and replace them with cloud-based options that would allow him to take on that greater goal: leveraging technology to enable the authority to perform its core mission of serving its community more rapidly and efficiently.
"The way we sold it is that it will benefit our agency and the community and it will be our new foundation that in the long run lowers risks and provides greater capability and greater availability to the community," said Patterson, who became the acting CIO on Aug. 1.
The Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority (LMHA) owns 2,709 housing units, oversees 4,663 housing vouchers and serves 17,000 individuals in the city of Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio.
Patterson, who comes to the authority from his Texas-based management consulting firm Patterson & Associates, where he remains president and CEO, had worked with LMHA on its strategic plans several years ago, so he said he was aware of its tech issues when he took on the lead IT position in early 2015.
"They needed to upgrade, and there was no alternative," he said. His dire assessment got the authority's executives and its board of commissioners to back him and provide the necessarily funding.
But Patterson didn't just sell his higher-ups on footing the bill for upgrades, which totaled around $250K. As part of his proposal, he sold them on moving to the cloud. Moving to the cloud would get LMHA out of the hardware business while providing more reliable business continuity at significantly lower costs, he argued. The scalability of cloud would also give the agency the flexibility to expand and pull back community services as needed.
Cloud adoption at federal agencies
Although private industry has been moving increasingly to the cloud, government has been much slower in adopting cloud technologies. Consider, for instance, a 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office that looked at the spending for cloud-based services at seven key federal agencies and found it totaled only 2% of total IT spend.
But government IT leaders are making inroads on cloud adoption. The December 2015 Cloud Adoption Report released by Bitglass, a cloud access security broker, found that 47% of federal, state and local government organizations had adopted cloud apps, including 27% that were using Office 365 and 19% using Google Apps.
Patterson said LMHA officials didn't want to be left behind.
"They had been hearing that we needed to make the change, and what drove them is mobility in reaching the community, disaster recovery capabilities and that we didn't need to maintain the same skill sets as if we were managing the hardware ourselves," he said.
Citrix built on Microsoft Azure Government
With the LMHA executives and board of commissioners backing his plans, Patterson worked with consultants and contractors to overhaul the authority's technology. Upgrades included moving to a cloud-based unified communication systems; replacing thin clients using a preinstalled Windows XP with new thin clients without any embedded operating system to allow for future flexibility; adding mobile devices; and switching from 20 on-premises servers to the Citrix Cloud built on Microsoft Azure Government.
Patterson said that last part -- "the trust and credibility" of tech giants Microsoft and Citrix and what this particular cloud setup offered -- was key to making the move.
"The hesitancy for us is that we didn't want the personal information of U.S. citizens hosted outside the U.S. In the commercial space you don't know where your data center is. But with Azure Government, it's in the domestic United States serviced by screened personal. That was important for us," Patterson explained.
Scalability of cloud drives community services
LMHA officials were also sold on what they'd be able to accomplish once the new technology was implemented, he added.
With the foundation in place, authority leaders are now able to move forward with programs and services they had long envisioned but were unable to deliver because they were hemmed in by their old infrastructure, Patterson said.
For instance, the authority can create classrooms at the different housing properties to provide education programs for residents. "It's what we always wanted to do, but now we have the tools to do it," he said, explaining that the cloud-based technology stack means the authority no longer needs to install and maintain IT assets on sites to provide such training but can rather just scale up and down as needs arise.
Change management, incentives
Patterson acknowledged that revamping the technology was just the start. He also had to get people to work differently. Change management, he said, is always a challenge, but he succeeded here by making the transition as easy as possible. He aimed for intuitive systems, and he even implemented short video tutorials for quick learning. "Who has time to read manuals?" he said.
He said he also let staff, LMHA partners and the community members it serves discover how much easier it is to interact with the new systems.
As an example, he cited the challenges he faced getting both staff and vendors away from paper-based invoices. Patterson said he wanted to eliminate as much paper as possible to create efficiencies and cut back on waste, but the vendors who were used to mailing invoices into the authority's offices were reluctant to electronically upload invoices instead. Even though the change seemed simple enough, some vendors fought it -- until they realized they could get paid in 15 days instead of the 60 it took under the old system. (Moreover, such changes have enabled the authority to cut the amount of physical paper in the organization by 75% in the past year.)
Authority personnel now are exploring the possibilities enabled by the new technology, such as more on-site services powered by cloud-based apps that can be accessed by the authority's new mobile devices as well as online payments and document submissions for residents including pay by phone. An analytics program is also on deck, Patterson said, starting with using analytics to improve workplace productivity by analyzing work patterns -- something that was nearly impossible to do with the authority's old systems and paper-intensive processes.
Beyond that, the housing authority plans to explore what other processes it should change and services it can add leveraging the new technology. Patterson said those could include using social media for outreach to residents and adding a TV channel with targeted programming, both additions that are relatively easy thanks to the scalability of cloud.
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