Internet and information technology are key factors that cities these days must possess. From various city departments to residential areas, the need for connecting everyone to the web has become a necessity. 

In this episode, Abhijit Verekar interviews Theogene Melancon, the City Manager of Dayton, Texas. Intending to use technology to make smarter decisions and processes for their city, Theogene talks about how they are taking cybersecurity to the next level, how they are hiring more employees for tech support, and how they are educating all departments about it. Be inspired by how Theogene weaves IT into their city’s growth as he shares their strategy for viable long-term IT.

AV: Business process and strategy and your vision drives what gets implemented. There is an educational aspect to this where you have to find the balance of what vendors are you even going to let them show you what their products are so that you can educate yourself and then make a decision on what fits your vision or not. That’s a good approach. In terms of IT strategy, we’ve talked about innovation and what that means to you. How do you translate that to a short-term or medium-term strategy for your city? What do you think are the foundations for a viable long-term IT strategy?

TM: Number one from the chief executive role that you must have a clear vision of what you want from your IT and the architecture and infrastructure. The executive doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert, but you have to have enough of a grasp for the capabilities of what IT can and cannot do, and how it correlates to the community’s expectations. 

Number one is you have to set a vision. What do you want out of whether there’s a new technology or expanding your current infrastructure? Number two, for city governments, and this probably goes along with any organization, you have to commit to Information Technology in the same way we commit to finance. They’re both internal services. IT cannot be the afterthought. It must be at the forefront of rolling out the new work processes and customer service processes.

We have to treat IT as an essential part of the organization and not another line item somewhere in a budget. We constantly consult with finance on projects, “Do we have enough funding for this? Are we running over-budget or under-budget?” Every project needs money but unfortunately, Information Technology is another great internal service and is a requirement. 

Think about building a building, how often is IT in the conversation on that? “We probably need to have high-speed internet there. We better hurry up and try to wire it in at the last minute.” That commitment is important. 

Lastly, incorporating Information Technology failures into our emergency response and recovery plans is something that cities have got to get on board with. As we become more and more dependent on Information Technology, we’re hearing about it through hacking and ransomware and all these other things. Issues in the recovery plan and response plans, that’s going to be the challenge for local governments.

AV: Great thoughts on IT strategy, Theo. How do you translate that to your techies? I’m assuming you have an IT team with the best geeks in town. In my experience, city managers, or even we, struggle with trying to translate our vision into how it should be to the guys that only see the ones and zeros. How do you do that?

TM: Going back to how I treat IT and finance similarly, a lot of times organizations don’t understand IT or finance protocols. All the chief executives and other departments will take a hands-off approach to the staff and leave them in their own little cubbyhole. They just do things. As long as everything works, it’s going to be okay. If you can’t smell the smoke doesn’t mean that Rome isn’t on fire. Having a vision, building the baseline knowledge from C-Suite, your chief executives and chief information officer, having that steady communication is going to be very important. The CEO or any chief executive has not been intimidated by IT on the frontend.

I say that because if you’re not intimidated and you’re willing to sit down and learn, engage the staff, it makes it a lot easier to include the Information Technology staff with the rest of the departments to show them the value that they bring to every department. That’s one of the things that gets lost is that they’re in their room, they’re handling the servers, they’re making sure that the network is healthy. How often do they get to go out into the field and see what they’re doing for the rest of the community they serve? One of the things we do as part of our leadership development program with the City of Dayton, we have reading clubs that go across departments. We try to put all the senior staff together, all the second line and in the third lines or in their leadership development groups across departments. They’re reading together and they take field trips to sister cities. We’ve brought guest speakers to our city management. IT staff is at every level of that leadership development pipeline. Some of it is trying to make sure that IT understands that they’re a part of a bigger picture, part of a team and that they are adding value and that all the people that they work alongside are real human beings.

The storytelling aspect of this is very important. How do things fit together with each other? You’re not just asking IT to build you a certain website or a process. It’s, “Who is it for? What benefits is it going to give internally and externally?” That’s brilliant. That brings me to my next point. You hear the term, smart city, a lot. You read about it in every magazine that comes out. 

AV: Everywhere you go, conferences, “Here we go, smart city,” what does that mean to you? 

TM: Smart city is coined as if you can get data and that you have all the bells and whistles, but that does not make a smart city. A smart city is a mindset. A smart city is proactive rather than reactive. Are you taking proactive steps toward managing public safety? Ask the management and your real-time responses to citizens. We’ve gotten very good at collecting data in cities, but the question is, do those mounds of data get lost in the cacophony of paperwork and inability to analyze? That would be one of my questions. I’ll ask it back to the end-user, your citizen, your business, “Are the data points that you’re grabbing going to create a better quality of life in a concrete way?” That would be some of the questions I have.

There are cities that are utilizing state-of-the-art data collection systems but aren’t executing on that data. On the other hand, I know cities, rural communities, that use pen and paper and are ultra-responsive to the needs of the residents and their desires and they’re proactive in their asset management. I would think the second city is a smart city and they’re doing it on pen and paper. I don’t think it’s about cutting-edge technology. Information Technology cannot just be a checkmark on your benchmark tests.

AV: We tend to get lost in the latest buzzwords and things that don’t necessarily apply to the end result. That’s a great point: you’re smart if you can use all of your techs to make better decisions for everybody. Let’s talk about cybersecurity. I don’t want to say it’s a buzzword, but it gets thrown around a lot. What are your thoughts on cybersecurity in things like ransomware that every city and county is facing? Without going into specifics, what do you think this is going to turn into in the next couple of years?

TM: It’s going to be a problem that’s going to increase as cities collect more and more data. 

That’s why we’ve become targets because of a lot of this data collection and it’s all in one centralized location. The biggest thing that we’re going to have to do is that we have to require our C-Suite to look at security first before implementation, in local government especially. We’ve implemented Information Technology without even thinking about security. 

That’s not necessarily the case in the private sector, especially if you think about the banking institutions – it’s from the very outset. They’re federally regulated. Now, the cities and counties and state governments collect a lot of personal data and it’s centralized. There’s got to be a shift in mind in the future. That is going to be a challenge.

It’s going to require us to have a more diligent active directory protocol. Keep our line-level employees from having access to sensitive data. Information Technology has got to take a lead on understanding more of the work process of all of the departments of a city so that they can properly administer security protocols as necessary. In a lot of cities, what you’ll find is that every employee has a certain amount of access to data that they don’t need to have because you were trying to give it to them. 

I don’t know if it’s laziness, oversight, or a lack of understanding of what information some of your lower-level employees need to have. That’s where a lot of those phishing attacks have come in. It was not from the chief executive clicking the link – it came from a line-level employee clicking the link and they were able to work their way through the network.

AV: Education is a huge part of keeping yourself secure. You could have the latest and greatest, but Sally Sue is going to click on that email sometimes that says, “Click here.” What have been your biggest challenges thus far in the city government?

TM: That is the case no matter what sector you’re in, but you always would like to have more resources than you have. I’ve worked in smaller cities where we have had limited resources. We’ve done some great things. We’ve been very proactive on a budget. 

Another area that’s interesting in gov tech right now is that there are constant changes in the IT field. I know that’s happening in the private sector, but for the first time in the public sector, you’re starting to see a lot of vendors popping up, a lot of new technologies. The question is which ones are fads and not getting caught up in those. On the other side, which ones have merit, but maybe you’re not fully fleshed out yet. You could give it a little more time for some of those technologies to mature before they’re ready for the prime stage of local government. 

At the end of the day, you have a captive audience waiting to see if you’re going to sprint to the finish line or trip and fall over yourself.

AV: It helps to be slow to adapt in those cases. A lot of times, cities and counties are behind by design and it has helped our cities and counties leapfrog some technologies that didn’t work for the private sector or other governments that wouldn’t want it to be on the bleeding edge.

TM: One of the perfect areas of that right now that we’re keeping an eye on as a profession is blockchain technology. What does the future hold for local government? It’s so fresh and new. It’s old technology. It’s not new but it’s a new application that’s being discussed. You’ll see cities and counties engage in it, but it will take a little bit of time to figure out how it fits in with all the other security measures that are tried and true.

AV: Given all of this uncertainty and the fast pace of change and the security risks, what do you see as the evolving role of the CIO, CTO going forward?

TM: One of the big issues is that Information Technology has always been the afterthought. 

Number one to have a successful evolution is going to have to include that the CIO be a strong communicator and be willing to get to know the other departments to understand work processes and get more direct feedback from the end-user if you’re talking to other departments. “What’s working and what’s not working? How can we still instill security features while at the same time having the flexibility and the network to get all the information necessary to help a resident?” That’s going to be a big part of the CIO’s future. A successful one is going to have to be very similar to the CEO in a lot of ways because there are very few departments. Finance, IT and HR, those are your only three areas that touch every single department of any organization at the end of the day.

Understanding the work processes, it’s also going to be important for the CIO to be at the forefront of a lot of these projects. In project management, every process, every expansion of capability, the CIO is going to have to be more involved. 

For a lot of organizations, it might have to be a CIO who’s a little bit more aggressive, not in a negative way, but be willing to sit at the table and be in this meeting for the kickoff meeting of this building or whatever it is. That’s got to be at the forefront of the future of the CIO and CTO.

AV: You said that leaders of the C-Suite need not be intimidated by the CIO. It works the other way too. What we’ve seen in many places is that this causes a communication rift where the city manager or the mayor doesn’t know what questions to ask or they don’t know when they get the answer if the answer is right or not. They continue on this limbo for years and that causes a lot of problems.

TM: Some of the engagement issues that we’ve had are similar to your accountant. You’re not sure exactly how the numbers added up, but you trust that they add it up somehow. That cannot be the relationship in Information Technology nor finance. You have to have a very strong grasp of both. 

Cities have adapted in some ways to the finance side because you’ve seen more city managers being hired from the finance department. That has been a reaction to the fact that councils and others do not understand finance, “Let’s hire the guy who does.” There are some pluses and minuses to that. I would say that probably the trend over the next 10, 15, 20 years is you’ll see a lot more CIO-types turn into CEOs because that is going to be the newest frontier of issues within organizations.

AV: That’s a scary thought, but I let it go. I saw that you guys have a lot of open positions or a few on your website, on LinkedIn. Are you having trouble recruiting the younger generation to come and work for city governments? How do you balance that?

TM: It has not been the easiest being an outer ring community of Houston because you can live in Houston, a very vibrant happening place and it’s ultra-competitive, especially in the Information Technology field. 

One of the big things that we’re doing is we’re grabbing kids in their sophomore, junior and senior years and we’re interning them. We are taking our local high school and using them as a testing ground. Some of these kids don’t know what they want to do. We had an intern in our Information Technology department who didn’t even know cities needed Information Technology. Now, he’s off to college. His goal is to come back to work for us because he can come back to his hometown and do what he loves to do.

Cities are going to have to be willing to get themselves out there. Most of the problems that cities have is we never market ourselves. We are terrible marketers, and that becomes painfully apparent when you’re trying to attract talent. You’ve never had to market yourself because if you don’t pay your utility bill, we cut your water off. Why do I need to market to you? That cannot be the approach if you’re trying to acquire talent. 

We do have quite a few positions open – it’s also a symptom of prosperity. We’re a growing community. A lot of these positions are first-time positions. We’re trying to find great professionals across many departments in an environment that is very competitive right now.

AV: Part of your job is to be risk-averse as a city manager and then you have this part of your job. It sounds like your personality too is to take some risks and try new things for the greater benefit. How do you find the balance and how do you bring your legislative body together to take some risks?

TM: The best example I have for that is we completed our initiation of a $13.7 million fiber project that’s going to lay about 80 miles of fiber optic line throughout the entire city. The city itself is going to become a utility provider of fiber internet. That’s a perfect example of how to do something that is extremely entrepreneurial, but you are limiting or hedging those risks. 

How did we do that? The first thing we did was we engaged professionals in the field who have worked with other cities and counties across the United States. We worked with them on business modeling. Is there a demand? We went out and we surveyed people. What is the quality of your internet? Would you consider a city utility and joining the City of Dayton? The surveys came out very well in our favor.

The price-point is a good place for us to be successful. The City of Dayton residents are clamoring for this internet service to be improved. One, you want to do what any company would do, due diligence. 

On the other side, we also used public financing, which allowed us to get lower interest rates. It also gives us an opportunity for the first two to three years as the project is coming on board to tap into general fund revenues to help as we build this new revenue source. There are some ways in which we have to be more risk-averse but at the same time, internet is another utility. It’s a stream of commerce. It’s a highway, it’s a road. We need to start treating it as such. That’s how you can take a little risk, build a portfolio of knowledge on what the technology is, and then use the public financing tools that do have some advantages over private sector financing.

AV: Do you have a power utility that you’re running this through? How are you doing the broadband at home?

TM: We’re running fiber only. We do not have an electric utility. Everything’s going to be underground. We are going to be serving about 98% of city residents in the project. 

Of course, they could stay with their current legacy systems, but I believe that word of mouth will quickly catch on that we are doing a quality service and that people will want to join the city’s utility. I’m proud to say that we would only be the second city in the State of Texas to be its own internet utility.

AV: Congratulations and good luck. I know a bunch of cities that are still thinking about doing that. Depending on what state you’re in, there are different regulations that play into it. Good job. Theo, you like taking on challenges clearly. Outside of that, what keeps you going in this role? You’re fairly young in the profession. You have a long career in front of you as a city manager. What keeps you going? What keeps you motivated?

TM: It goes back to the entrepreneurial spirit. As long as I’m allowed in my role as a public servant to maintain a public entrepreneurship aspect, that will keep me driving along quite nicely. I love to come up with new and inventive ways to enhance the quality of life. It makes me feel good to know that every day I can look out my window and point out a project that I know is going to make something a little bit better for people. It may be something as mundane as changing out a water line, or creating a sewer lift station. I know I’m helping somebody in some way, shape, or form. 

It’s not just about we’re doing a fiber project, we’re doing this brand-new smart app stadium lighting project. Those are great projects, but sometimes getting a little dirty and digging a hole does a lot more for somebody if they can’t flush your toilet or they can’t get down their street because of the condition of the road. 

As long as I can find a direct tie to my work to helping somebody, I can find the motivation to keep going.

AV: Theo, it’s people like you that make this profession great. I was talking with somebody and I said, “I’m starting a podcast,” and he’s like, “What’s the subject?” I said, “I’m going to be talking with city and county managers across the country.” There’s the look of boredom that crosses their face. It’s amazing how much of your story doesn’t get told of the good stuff that you guys are doing. Thank you for doing that. I have no further questions, but if you have any other things you want to explore and talk about, we can keep going.

TM: The only other thing I would say is one of my favorite things to do and some of the work as a city manager is innovation. 

One of the projects we’re working on right now is something called DDACTS, which is Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety. We’re building heat maps, which is not unusual. You find where you’re patrolling versus where crimes are occurring. We’re going to look proactively forward, not just retroactively, and we’re going to look at code enforcement issues, utility billing issues. We’re going to test out a little theory to see if code enforcement and utility billing is a precursor to some area becoming a crime in a heat map centered area. 

One of the things we’re going to be doing is trying things and not everything is going to work, but we’re going to keep on chugging along.

AV: How are you guys doing this? Is there any AI platform involved?

TM: We have our GIS analyst. We have our staff in the police department. We literally hand tab pretty much all of our data. I’m sure one day we’re going to have the API system that’s going to allow us to have a lot of cross-communication talk between systems. Right now, we’re doing it the old-fashioned way and manually comb through data. 

Kudos to the staff. They’re doing great work because that’s how we’re going to make great decisions. It’s going to be looking at things in a different way than we always did before. We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created at the end of the day.

AV: As far as code enforcement and permitting those, do you have the data set ready? Are you still operating on a paper-based process and someone had to translate all that into electronics.

TM: In that world, we are in the midst of digitizing everything. We have been pretty lucky in that we already had a bit of an older system that allowed us to create the database of information. We’re going to be rolling that over into newer software and a new ERP (enterprise resource planning). We’re going to do it. With that ERP, we’ll be able to more directly link to a lot of these heat maps and so forth. It’s going to allow us to have the flexibility, so we’re not hand tabbing everything. What’s going to happen is because we have all of these cross-departmental leadership development teams, we’re going to form those into doing projects.

What I want to do is, I want to take my third line of people with the GIS analysts and work with economic development, work with our public safety, and cross-correlating what areas that affordable housing is necessary. What would be great places to put multimodal transportation spots? 

At the same time, we’re going to be looking at public safety. Where are areas that have a lot of code enforcement violations being written? This is a good time to catch it while it’s code enforcement rather than evolving into dilapidated homes, people leaving the community, having a flight out. Those are the things that we’re going to be looking at over the next few years.

AV: Is that the largest project you have going on right now in terms of pure technology?

TM: In pure technology, one of them is building out the whole network for our fiber project. It is going to take much of our time. 

Another project that we tied up and finished, but now it’s going to be harnessing this data, is we redesigned our complete land use plan for the city. We’re making it more in line with some urban mix in it. We did that for our businesses because we wanted to, first, make it more business-friendly. Number two, we tie every parcel of land. You can go on our website, it’s interactive, where every data set that you need to develop a piece of land is all on one map. 

If I want to buy a parcel of land, I click on it. It comes up with all the tax information, contact information and then it gives you all of our landscape design, our architectural design and any type of planning requirements and so forth, all in one place. That’s been one of our projects that we’re still cleaning up a little bit here and there, but it’s a great process and it has gone over very well with the community. 

That’s been fun. A lot of work to put it together, but it has helped businesses and developers immensely.

AV: Theo, you’ve only been in Dayton, Texas for a few years. Did you inherit a lot of good stuff or is this all ground up for you?

TM: Most of this is ground up. When I first came to the organization, they had hired their first full-time IT employee probably six months before I arrived. When I first got here, I sat with an IT director at the time and I talked about the future, what I expected of the city government and how I want it to be responsive over time. 

We were very far from where my vision was. It took us adding staff. We’re up to four full-time, but we also have a couple of employees that are housed in other departments that have some function with IT. That allows us to be flexible. We’re starting to hit our stride now. We’re starting to reap the rewards now of the work that’s been going on in the last couple of years and it’s pretty fun.

AV: How big is your organization overall?

TM: We have approximately 125 employees in total. We run about an annual budget of around $21 million a year. That’s including a lot of our capital projects, not including this new fiber project. That’s going to be its own budget item. Probably, we’ll be adding another $5 million a year to the portfolio at that point.

AV: Four IT guys, 120 employees, do you see that number growing in overall employees and the IT staff?

TM: Both. I’d like to say my Information Technology grows probably at a slightly faster rate than my other departments. We were coming from so far behind. We had one IT professional trying to manage about 95 employees. To have four with about 125, the ratio is getting a little better now.

AV: The ratio isn’t translated from city to city as you know. You have to find the right balance for you. Are you operating off of maybe a three or five-year IT strategic plan? Is there a master list of projects that you’re tasking IT with?

TM: We have about a three-year horizon plan that we’ve put together. Most of that work has to do with adding enterprise resource modules to several departments. We’re trying to tie in public safety to courts that then ties into finance, so that there’s a lot less paperwork. We should be done with that in the next couple of months. 

That’s going to take a ton of our work hours. It’s going to allow us to focus on some other things with that. When I first got to the organization, we were literally still writing tickets in quadruplet. It had to go to its various places and every supervisor under the sun had to sign off on it before it went to court, and things of that nature. We’re cleaning a lot of that up, those processes.

That’s one of the biggest issues any city is having when they add Information Technology. I don’t know if you’ve seen this a whole lot, but one of the things I’ve seen is organizations get all this new Information Technology and then not even change their work processes. What was the point of ever-changing? 

One of the things we’re doing is as we’re implementing, we’re sitting now saying through several of our processes, we amended a basic lean review of those processes. In our planning process for new subdivisions, we went from a six-week turnaround to about four weeks, and now we get all permits completed in ten days. In comparison, a lot of our sisters that are much larger than us have a plan review that sits somewhere in the neighborhood of six to nine months versus 10 days. Businesses are clamoring.

AV: What system are you using for plan reviews?

TM: We use Tyler Technologies. They have a system. We use Incode version 10, which is their newest bell and whistle. It works well. It does everything we need to do. Now, the goal is to get every department under that umbrella and try to modernize across the board.

AV: That’s a good set of products. Theo, I want to thank you for joining us. We should do this again, maybe in a year or so to see how far you’ve gotten with your vision. That would be interesting. I look forward to staying in touch with you.

TM: I appreciate it and I look forward to it.

About Theogene Melancon

Theo received his Juris Doctor/Graduate Diploma in Comparative Law Degree from Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center and his Master’s in Public Administration from Louisiana State University. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Theo is a member of the Texas City Management Association, where he serves on the organization’s Ethics Committee and the International City/County Management Association.

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