Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross on the power of people-centered tech

How the pandemic helped city leaders in America’s second-largest metro raise their digital IQ

Ted Ross, CIO, Los Angeles

The pandemic tested municipal governments in new and multiple ways. Has it also put digital innovation on the fast track in North America’s second-largest metro region?

Tune into the Let’s Workflow It podcast to find out.

This week, co-hosts Alan Marks, the former chief marketing officer of ServiceNow, and Kathryn Minshew, the founder of The Muse, talk with Ted Ross, the chief information officer for the City of Los Angeles.

In the final episode of Season 1, Ross describes how the city developed new digital services, for everything from rental assistance to vaccines, to LA’s 4 million residents.

Episode transcript

Ted Ross [TR]:
Technology, 20 years ago, it was one thing. Today it’s another. Ten years from now, it’ll be something different. It changes, but it should be human-centered. It should be people-centric. Technology should be enobling and making our lives better, not making our lives worse.

***

Kathryn Minshew [KM]:
Hey, everybody. From ServiceNow, this is Let’s Workflow It, a podcast about the workflow revolution. I’m Kathryn Minshew, founder and CEO of The Muse.

Alan Marks [AM]:
And I’m Alan Marks, [former ]chief marketing officer of ServiceNow.
Editor’s note: Alan Marks was CMO at ServiceNow from March 2020 to September 2021.

KM:
In every episode, we’re going to pull back the curtain on how businesses today are driving transformation and growth with digital workflows.
It’s obvious that everything about the way we work is changing. But we’re noticing some really interesting contrasts. For example, we live in an age when so much arrives at the press of a button. But at work, most of us are still putting up with clunky, outdated systems. Turns out, businesses are hungry to solve this problem.

AM:
So it got us thinking. Who are the organizations out there who are bold enough to embrace this change? It’s time to hear from them. Let’s workflow it.

KM:
Let’s workflow it.

***

KM:
Alan. It’s great to see you today.

AM:
Hey, Kathryn, great to be here with you.

KM:
You know I’m really excited for today’s episode. It feels to me like the perfect way to wrap up our season.

When we started out making this series during the pandemic, we felt it was really important to begin the season talking with a public official figuring out how to vaccinate a nation. But now, in today’s episode, we’re talking with someone running a complex operation for the City of Los Angeles as it emerges from the pandemic.

AM:
That’s right, Kathryn. You know like big cities everywhere, LA faced just enormous challenges during COVID. And the way the city was able to implement tech solutions quickly in the face of these challenges is just extraordinary. And it resulted in truly innovative cutting-edge services for citizens. And really helped the city deliver the benefits to people who were truly in need during the pandemic.

KM:
Yeah, absolutely, and one of the key figures who really came up with a lot of those solutions is our guest today: Ted Ross. So Ted is the general manager and the chief information officer for the City of Los Angeles Information Technology Agency.

Throughout his career in government, he’s been using digital transformation to provide services to citizens and employees, both, in a way that gets results and inspires trust.

So, I’m really excited today to get his take on some of the technology solutions that were put in place during COVID, including, for example, the rollout of initiatives like the rental assistance program.

AM:
We’ll get into all that in a bit. But first, let’s say hello.

Ted Ross, welcome to Let’s Workflow It!—such a pleasure to have you here today.

TR:
Alan and Kathryn, the pleasure is mine.

KM:
Welcome Ted, we’re really excited to have you.

To start with, what exactly is involved with being the chief information officer for a city like Los Angeles, the second most populous city in the United States?

TR:
Certainly. And what it means—because a CIO can mean a lot of different things a lot of different places—it means I run the city’s IT agency. It’s a department of about 450 IT professionals.

They’re spread across 19 different divisions. Traditional IT does a lot of different things in government. So we’re responsible for everything straightforward like computer support and websites or a data center. But we also do things like we run a TV station, we have a 311 call center, etc. So we do a lot of different kinds of technologies from social media to your traditional type of technical work.

KM:
Can you just talk us through the range of city workers that your team supports? It’s incredibly broad from what I understand.

TR:
Oh, yes. So there’s over 50,000 employees at the City of Los Angeles, and you can imagine it’s across 43 different departments. So LAX is a city department, the LA police department, libraries, parks, cultural affairs. There’s so many different kinds of people who work for the city, and so many kinds of services that we provide.

So my department helps support office workers, accountants, financial folks, administrative staff, analysts. But we also support field workers, people who trim trees and mow lawns and make the city look beautiful, pick up trash, and take care of things. Fix sewer systems. We have to support elected officials. And we also support, of course, our public safety personnel. So all of these are employees that we support.

KM:
That’s incredible. And at the start of the pandemic, you had to essentially accomplish the feat of mobilizing 18,000 employees, and many of whom had to shift into working remotely in a matter of days—what was that like? How did that go?

TR:
Kathryn, terrifying is the only word that you can come up with. And I say it jokingly, afterwards, because we were very successful. But before the pandemic, we had 35 teleworkers. Then, quickly, we had to get 18,000 people teleworking. They need to be out there getting their work done to keep the city running when Angelenos need them the most during the pandemic.

So the shift involves us seeing this coming down the pipeline, two to three weeks in advance. We had to establish a platform from scratch that did not exist before. We had to try that platform out. Don’t tell the mayor or city council, but I sent staff home early to simply try the platform out, see if they could get their jobs done, to eat our own dog food as they say.

And then once we could see the strengths and weaknesses, make enhancements, etc., then we were ready for 12,000 employees within the first 72 hours and 18,173 employees within about the first 10 days, all of which had very important, different jobs to do.

KM:
I can’t even imagine. And so, what types of roadblocks did you run into when you were building out the platform “Connect to LA City,” and what, perhaps, inventive solutions did you or your team come up with?

TR:
First and foremost, and in hindsight, this was the right move. We started off by almost approaching it like a website or an app. And we said to ourselves, who’s our customer? Because they’re different.

So we start off by trying to understand our user base. When you think about it, you got office professionals. So let’s say an accountant. They need to have access to the types of spreadsheets or the files that they work with. But then you have different from that, they have clerical staff, they’re heavy into email, calendar, etc., appointments, phones, communications. Then you have managers who have to review and approve and monitor work.

All of these are different kinds of personas. By breaking our users into those different personas, it allowed us the ability to deliver solutions that we know would meet what they needed to do.

And we also tried it out on multiple different devices. Something we really learned early on is it wasn’t just city employees being sent to work from home. Their children were being sent to school from home. Family members were quarantining with them. And very quickly that Windows desktop that they were used to using, next thing you know the city employee is using a smartphone or a tablet to get their job done.

So we had to really be able to do it off of multiple devices, and that was a very quick lesson learned.

AM:
Ted, it’s just extraordinary to hear all the innovation, the creativity, how your team responded, the complexity of everything you were dealing with. ServiceNow and LA: tell us, how did we come together? How did the partnership happen?

TR:
Yeah. ServiceNow is a really important partner for the city of Los Angeles. Originally, it started with us saying, “We need a different IT service management system.” That’s how we started with ServiceNow. But very quickly, our manager started to say, “Wait a second. We might have started by using it for service management, but there’s a lot more under the hood that we could get done.”

If you had a fast forward to, let’s say, the pandemic, we were spinning up apps for things like COVID testing, and spinning up rapidly and deploying it to people. So I never would have foreseen that, when we started down the road of ServiceNow, that we’d end up utilizing it for so many different things very effectively.

AM:
And tell us, one great example was the rental assistance program that you had to support as such a critical need during the pandemic to help people out. Tell us more about that. How did you bring technology solutions to bear on that program?

TR:
Yeah, Alan, that’s a really great example. So, if we could roll back, you know that the pandemic is a huge health issue, but it quickly became an economic issue too.

Fortunately, our elected officials at city council, the mayor’s office were able to come up with two rounds of rent relief. The first one was $105 million. And so, it comes up with that fascinating question: How do you distribute $105 million in a contactless way? I can’t have people visit a city building. They can’t come in front of our staff. They can’t interact with each other. We’re trying to prevent the spread of a global pandemic. And so, that’s where ServiceNow became a very effective solution for us to do that.

AM:
That’s a great example of the role technology played throughout the pandemic. Can you just speak more to the role of technology in this process?

TR:
Sure. First, we had to set up a public registration portal. You had to have some kind of online tool that people could easily access, easy to use, very intuitive, to be able to receive the applications. We had over 221,000 applications from households.

It can’t crash. You can’t have it right where, as soon as you put the app up, everything crashes, and everyone looks at you like, “What did you do?” Right? You can’t be that guy. Secondly, you had to be able to have the ability to answer a series of questions.

So the public had to input their eligibility. We had to be able to have a system that would randomize the results, because we couldn’t give rent relief to everyone who applied. So we actually had to have a very auditable, randomized process to make the selection. We had to notify the recipient. We had to vet the recipient. We couldn’t do it in front of them, so they were taking photos of documents, which means it needs to be secure. I can’t allow somebody’s driver’s license or sensitive information to be disclosed to cybercriminals.

Then we had to, after we vetted the recipient, notify their landlord and help match-make, so the landlord would receive the funds completely in the contactless way. And that’s what we were able to do with ServiceNow’s technology. Technology was a saving grace in so many ways to be able to have us effectively respond to something as terrible as the COVID-19 pandemic.

AM:
That’s just amazing, such extraordinary stories. For the city of LA, like so many companies and organizations around the world, there must have been so many moments of just, “How do we do this? How do we solve these unprecedented issues that we’re facing in real time?”

In hindsight, are there some lessons learned of what prepared your team to rise to the occasion, understand what technology could do, and be able to solve these issues so quickly?

TR:
I think it really comes down to platform building. By investing in platforms, instead of standalone apps. You actually invest in technology that not only solves one problem, but as technology that you could then utilize to solve other problems. Notice how I even described it earlier. We started off by solving an IT service management problem, which is basically taking people’s tickets and issues and helping improve the performance as an IT service team. But then next thing we’re able to do a COVID-19 testing app.

And so, to the user, it was just, we built an app, but we built it super fast. But we built it on a platform, which means we had drag-and-drop configuration. We had out-of-the-box workflow, we had security, we had a site that could handle the traffic. So these are all things that were already built into the platform that we could leverage. How do you build an app in 72 hours? You build it on a platform, so that 80% of it is already there.

AM:
It’s such great insight, that scalability, the flexibility, the agility, the importance of platforms to solve end-to-end solutions across an organization. The other thing I love is technology and the service of people, and technology should really help people, benefit people, and you’re just such a shining example of that.

TR:
I appreciate that. And you’re entirely right. Technology, 20 years ago, it was one thing; ten years ago, another. Today it’s another. Ten years from now, it’ll be something different. It changes, but really it should be human-centered. It should be people-centric. Technology should be enobling and making our lives better, not making our lives worse. And when you work as a government technologist, I mean, that’s just probably my job description: use technology to make life better and not worse.

***

KM:
I think it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that technology over the past 20 years has been progressing at what feels like light speed sometimes. Can you, looking back, are there any pivotal moments that you would point to when something new in technology really transformed your work or your way of working?

TR:
Sure, certainly. There’s really so many. You know, one of the things that was transformational has to do with mobile apps. It used to be that if you needed a city service, you’d have to go visit a city building.

When we created the 311 Call Center, it was seen as innovative, the idea that you could just dial 311 and talk with the city. But that really does feel old-fashioned.

When we launched our “MyLA311” mobile app, it blew my mind, the ability that I could take a smartphone that was in my pocket, I could take a picture of, let’s say, some graffiti on the wall, I could use geolocation, I can tell the city of this place, is this graffiti? And here’s a picture of it. And not only does it help submit the request, it actually allows the government workers to more efficiently respond. Is it on a brick wall? Is it on a block wall? Did I say it was at one location when it’s really at another? The app helps solve all of that.

So we can send the right crew to the right spot and get it done. And not only that, but once it’s resolved, as long as you’re signed into the app, we’ll let you know we did it. We could even send you a picture of it cleaned up.

So this concept that you are carrying a computer around with you, and that you could actually help us get this job done, I found that to be absolutely mind-blowing. And here we are, there’s over 1 million requests per year coming in through our app. So, yeah, it’s extremely exciting.

AM:
Absolutely. Every customer we deal with is grappling with some of the same challenges you talk about, digital transformation, how do we use technology to improve services for our employees and our customers?

In the public sector environment, what are some of the biggest challenges you encounter in trying to really drive digital transformation and help the city realize the full benefits of technology?

TR:
I think the classic government answer is a lack of funding, but that’s not my answer. Honestly, a lack of funding quite often becomes an excuse. Because part of what digital transformation and what digital services have provided is, readily, very low-cost solutions.

It doesn’t mean that everything is free, it’s not free, but there are things that used to require many millions of dollars to do that you could accomplish with software as a service today you couldn’t even do before. I think funding often becomes a scapegoat, and it’s not true.

I would say the biggest challenge is actually improving our own digital IQ. We have access to great technology. We’re leveraging best practices with agile software development and user-centered design and all these really great concepts, but as city managers and as employees, we quite often don’t apply these tools and we don’t apply these best practices where we should.

So I think technology has probably outpaced our ability to effectively implement it, which means we need to become better at technology. And that’s more of a human problem than I think really a technological one.

AM:
Always gets back to people, right? And relationships.

KM:
Always.

TR:
I think it really does. There’s a quote I love to throw around here, and it’s not my quote. I borrowed it from others. And that is, “There’s no such thing as technology projects, there’s people projects with technology.” I think the more you look into it and the more you’re a practitioner, the more you realize that it really isn’t about the technology. It’s about the humans who use it, build it, implement it, etc.. And that’s the problem we’re always trying to solve.

AM:
And every company is having to deal with more issues around ethics and privacy and security and transparency. Do you feel in the public sector that’s a bigger issue for you as you try to deploy technology?

TR:
Yeah, I think it’s a huge issue. We, like many others, are innovating. I remember five, six years ago, everyone telling innovation, how do we innovate? I think that ship has sailed. Everyone’s innovating. I think even the most backward organization has been innovating in many key ways.

So it’s not just about innovating, because the innovation is happening. But as Americans have become increasingly digital, they’ve also become increasingly distrustful of digital technology. I think that that is a bigger problem that we have to solve.

Us deploying more websites, more apps, more databases, more things for people to question, are you tracking me? What are you doing with my data, etc.,? It means that we need to be both innovative and ethical, which means we need to clearly establish what our ethics are and what our digital ethics are as an organization, so that when I’m getting data from you, I’m letting you know how I’m using it, what it’s used for, and what rights you have over your data.

So we’re in this strange world in which people are increasingly using technology, but are increasingly distrustful of it. But it’s really important because people don’t trust what’s happening with their data and they don’t trust what’s being done with their services. And if you’re a government and you don’t have the trust of your people, then you’re in a very serious situation.

AM:
Like any organization, that just requires transparent leadership and open communications and to build that trust and build that relationship.

TR:
Yep. And as they say, Alan, if I may interrupt, trust is hard to gain and easy to lose.

AM:
Absolutely.

KM:
Easy to lose.

AM:
Absolutely. Our CEO loves to say, “You earn it in drops and lose it in buckets.”

TR:
And that sounds like a good saying.

KM:
Hear, hear.

AM:
So Ted, we believe deeply in the relationship between the employee experience and the customer experience. And those two things are really interconnected, and technology plays a vital role in both experiences. How do you think about that in a public sector context of the experience you’re delivering for city workers and, therefore, the experience you’re delivering for residents of Los Angeles?

TR:
Yeah, I think it’s directly related. I believe the experience that the employees have sets the stage for the experience that they provide to their own customers, whether it’s other employees or whether it’s to the public itself.

So I guess, as an example, when I think about it, Alan, if I were to invite you to my house. If my house was super clean, if it looked like a museum, everything was laid out, I think you would maybe walk in and say, “Should I take my shoes off?” You’d be very respectful of that environment. But, if my house was a complete and utter mess, you’d probably look and say— First of all, it would reflect poorly on me. But secondly, you may not be as respectful of it. And you may not feel like I’m respecting it itself. I think it’s the same way that it comes with an employee experience.

When employees join our organization, there should be a level of excellence. That’s expected of them in a way that they will perform, which means they’ll transfer that level of excellence to the customers that they work with, like our residents.

It also comes down to the digital IQ that I was mentioning before; our ability to improve the digital IQ. So the tools that employees use themselves, or the tools that employees use with each other. The fact that they get on a video conference and they’re using polling. And they’re creating forms and they’re creating their own websites. Those kinds of skills will transfer to how they treat a customer because they’ll just cross apply all those tools. And our customers will be very impressed, because our employees are showing a level of capability that they’ve been practicing amongst each other and they’re showing it to our customer. So, I think there’s an absolute relationship between the two.

AM:
That idea about digital IQ, digital literacy. Over the past year, during the pandemic, necessity is the mother of invention, right? But, in general, how do you think about constantly inspiring your team and having your team think of new, innovative ways to use technology? Are there lessons learned and that you’ll carry forward?

TR:
Yes. So, it comes in a few ways. When I think about the city employee population as a whole, we’ve been very busy during the pandemic. We created something every two weeks called ITA office hours, the IT Agency office hours. And what we knew is that, quite often for people who are working from home, we had a captive audience, as they say.

And so what we would do is we would cover various topics, some of them very simple. How to better use your email. How to better use your calendar. Because we knew that the better they were with even something as simple as email or calendar, the more their digital IQ would increase.

But, to things more complicated, like basic data analysis, basic cybersecurity. Funny enough things like the cybersecurity conversation were extremely popular. Believe it or not, one of our recent sessions had over 1,700 government employees on the session. So it’s really popular. But, by doing something like that, we really build their IQ and their ability to innovate.

But, then let’s switch gears to, let’s say my team, IT professionals. When we think about that, there’s a lot of really interesting ways to get them motivated and to innovate. And it starts with, I think, by nature, IT professionals are tinkerers. They like to take technology and try things out.

So by giving opportunities for IT staff to do a little tinkering in their spare time, that allows them to then identify new services and new opportunities and to be able to build and develop some of that innovation. And then, if it really works, we can experiment with it, invest in it, and then move it into production and actually make it something for Angelenos to use.

AM:
I love it. You’re painting this vision of the City of LA acting like a Silicon Valley startup. I love the energy of it.

TR:
Sure. And Alan, to be honest, I’m competing with Silicon Valley. So I don’t want my staff to say, “Why do I want to work for the city of LA, where I sit on an old payroll system, just keep it running. That’s not motivating. I want to work for government and play with some of that cool stuff, build things that people find valuable and deliver it.” Because when you work for the city of LA, you’re not just a very small cog in a very big wheel. The stuff you touch impacts 4 million residents, 500,000 businesses, 50,000 employees. And if I want to hire and attract really good talent, I have to be able to make that a part of the work that they do.

***

KM:
So, Ted, I want to switch gears for a minute and talk about hybrid work. In my main job as CEO of The Muse, this question of remote, hybrid, back in a physical office, it is consuming discussions. Employers, employees. As you look at the city potentially reopening, how are you thinking about this idea of a hybrid workplace?

TR:
I’m a huge fan. I was a huge fan of telework before COVID. But, as you could see, there were many government issues to make that happen. And, I mentioned before, we only had 35 teleworkers before the pandemic. They were in my department. And it took me two years to make that happen, right.

And I think we need to take advantage and use COVID as a catalyst. So COVID has had a lot of terrible things. But if there is a silver lining, it’s demonstrated [that] we can do the job and we could do it from home.

So what does that mean? That means we should be able to ennoble and empower our employees to work from home. Now, I’m a big fan that people should also come into the office, too. So at my department, we are setting up the stage that everyone will come into the office at least one day a week. And allows teams to be able to gel together, work together, interact with each other. And for many of the employees I’ve worked with, they like that. They like the ability to see their boss face to face. Be able to do certain facets.

But, then also give them the ability to telework up to four days a week for jobs that could support it. When I look at our metrics, when I look at the services that we’ve performed, the projects we completed over this last year, etc., we’ve done something like 35% more IT projects this last year than the year before. And we did that during the pandemic.

I believe we could actually deliver better services, better efficiency, and better product, and do it in a more resilient way. Because if we have an earthquake, if we have fires, if we have some other kind of natural event, it means that my workforce can keep the city running even though they can’t go to a physical city building.

So I’m a huge fan of hybrid telework, as long as it has the right types of metrics, the right type of supervision, the right type of structure to ensure that we’re really getting the bang for our buck.

KM:
We love hearing from our guests about what trends really excite them, on the horizon. What are you looking ahead to that you’re most interested by, right now?

TR:
Sure. I’d have to say artificial intelligence. That is one that’s fascinating. And it’s been intriguing me for several years.

We are getting into a world where some technology is so good that it really does outperform the person. Now, that’s both an intriguing and a scary thought at the same time. Now, we need to do it, with all the right kinds of safeguards. But, I think artificial intelligence could allow our residents to live happier lives, our businesses to prosper more, for people to be transported more safely around the cities like Los Angeles.

There’s so much opportunity with artificial intelligence. But at the same time, I understand it’s a scary conversation because we’ve all seen all the TV shows and all the movies that give us a very grim perspective of what artificial intelligence can do.

KM:
Yeah, yeah. And it’s an interesting question, right? Thinking about when and at what point do these new trends truly have the legs to be implemented in government? When are they: right time, right place, right application for the types of problems that you’re solving?

TR:
You know when it comes to government, that’s citizen money that I’m gambling with. So me spending a bunch of money on a bunch of R&D that goes nowhere, that’s not a good feeling in government. So I can’t be leading edge. But I can be a fast follower, which means that by me understanding the trends that are going on. By me looking at private sector and other leading organizations. And then once that starts to become really production ready, and I can see how to apply the purpose in government, then I should start off with a proof of concept. And if that shows that it has legs, then I should make my investment.

So I think that’s always the right place for government, is watch very closely what others are doing, adopt where you know it makes sense, do so with that government lens, because I’m not a private sector company and I need to be smart and I need to take care of all my constituencies. But then, where something really is gold, put that money into it.

KM:
And, to dig deeper into one specific area, can you tell us a little bit about the Los Angeles smart city strategy and what it’s looking to do?

TR:
Yeah, certainly. We have two prominent strategies. One of them is our digital strategy from COVID-19 and beyond which talks internally on how to improve the way we deliver our services. But then we have a smart city strategy called Smart LA 2028. And really what it is, is it’s a multi-year strategy, 54 pages, 66 goals across five key areas. But it allows us to prepare the technology that helps deliver public good. So it’s not just internal. It’s how do we deal with smart infrastructure that allows us to track things like electric vehicle charging or lighting, or where our utilities are.

Data. We’re looking at building a regional data platform that could share data with private sector, government and vice versa. It’s a marketplace so that people can either get data for free, or they can pay for data where it’s warranted. But, it’s a platform that government could run so that people can do secure data transfer.

Digital services to create a MyLA where it’s not just us receiving requests from you, but it’s us pushing things to you that you might find valuable, but not creepy. If we knew that you have kids, we can tell you that at the local library they’re doing reading for kids. Maybe you’re interested. Maybe you’re not. Things you can opt in or opt out of, as well as things like digital inclusion and governance.

So how to make sure that people who are underserved, who are not competing in the digital economy, can. And how to govern this whole thing. So yeah, there’s a lot of work that we’re doing to help set the stage for all the big sporting events that are coming between now and the year 2028 in the city of Los Angeles.

KM:
I was going to ask about that because when you mentioned 2028, I thought obviously immediately there’s a big summer sporting event coming up for LA. And it sounds like the Los Angeles Smart City Strategy is a really important part of being prepared for that.

TR:
That’s right. There’s value we build now. There’s value we build in a year or two. And there’s value that we build leading all the way up to it. And we’re big believers that you can’t just build value really quickly. Sometimes you have to build value, then build on that value, then build on that value. So to be ready for the year 2028, as a real legitimate global smart city, it has all these different steps and goals for us to get there so we can be the global city that we know we are to be able to host the world.

KM:
I love that. Well, Ted, thank you so much. Getting your perspective on how the public sector is leading so much transformation has been inspiring. I really appreciate your passion and commitment, and I love knowing that there are people like you in government working for all of us. So thank you so much for the time and for joining us on the podcast today.

TR:
Absolutely. My pleasure.

AM:
Thank you, wonderful to have you with us today.

KM:
Let’s workflow It! is a production of ServiceNow and Slate Studios. You can find out more about Ted Ross and all the guests in this series at slate.com/letsworkflowit.