CIO Interview

New York City's new CIO pulls it all together in the nation's largest city.

Lee Copeland

“It’s like coming home!” That’s what New York City means to its new CIO. “I was born in Queens and raised in Mineola on Long Island, and I worked for 20 years in New York City in the private sector,” says Paul J. Cosgrave. “So it feels just like coming home. My family’s here, and I love what I’m doing here. This is the greatest place in the world to be doing information technology.”

When Cosgrave was appointed commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) by New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June 2006, he hit the ground running. Cosgrave had previously served as CIO of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C. He has spent more than a quarter century in the private sector, most recently as chairman, president and CEO of Claremont Technology Group, headquartered in Beaverton, Ore.

Cosgrave recently spoke with StateTech about his new appointment, the proposed rollout of an Enhanced 911 (E911) system and his thoughts on cyberterrorism.

STATETECH: So far, what’s the biggest difference you’re finding in working with city government as opposed to the federal government?
PAUL J. COSGRAVE: Let me put that into context: The first 25 years or so of my career were with the private sector. There’s more similarity between the city and the federal governments [than] if you compare them with the private sector. Clearly, government has a much broader role in serving a lot of different constituents, whereas in the private sector it’s pretty straightforward: You’re there to make money.

When we in government make decisions, the complexity of the decisions is actually a lot harder than in the private sector because you have a lot more tradeoffs to make. In the city, I’m finding it to be more challenging — and I translate that into fun — because the city has approximately 80 different agencies, offices, boards and authorities.

We do everything from public safety on the one hand — police, fire and that sort of thing — to many human-services functions. So there’s a tradeoff — we constantly have to decide where to put our resources and where to make our investments. What is most exciting to me about being here in New York City is just the absolute diversity of what we deal with every single day.

STATETECH: How does decision-making in New York compare with what was done at the IRS?
COSGRAVE: Because the city is so much more diverse, the resources here are more decentralized. Where it has made sense we’ve centralized information technology services within DoITT, but many of the agencies still run a fair amount of their own IT.

What I have as the DoITT commissioner and the city CIO therefore is an oversight role in how they’re using technology and how they’re making their investments. I work with the city Office of Management and Budget and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services to make sure that the investments the other agencies are doing are aligned with the overall direction of New York City.

That was also the situation at the IRS when I arrived there. I managed about half the budget, and I oversaw the other half.

But because of a major change that occurred at the IRS at the time I arrived, the CIO was given full control. So working with the other agencies in an oversight role is probably the biggest difference between the city and the IRS, and that’s because what we’re doing is so different.

STATETECH: Do you see New York City becoming more centralized in terms of its IT budget and projects now that you’ve taken over this role?
COSGRAVE: Yes and no. I’ll give you two examples of how centralization has had a major, positive impact on the way the city operates, both in terms of the customer service orientation and the economies of running data centers.

One example involves the backbone infrastructures — running the telecommunication networks, the computer data centers and some help desk and desktop services. There are huge economies of scale associated with the infrastructure part of IT, and it makes sense to run that on a more consolidated basis.

Second, we’ve centralized the 311 Citizen Service Center, which is a call-center operation that takes all nonemergency calls for all city agencies. Residents just have to dial 311, and they’re routed directly to a live representative 24 hours a day, seven days a week, who is able to provide answers on all things relating to city information and services.

We handle about 40,000 calls a day, ranging from people reporting potholes to everything short of an emergency. About 20 percent are human services-related calls.

The 311 service has had a transforming role for New York City because it’s now a central place to call. Before, there were about 14 separate pages in the telephone book of agencies you’d have to call when you needed something.

The problem was that people never knew what agency to call. Now they just call 311, and we make sure the service gets delivered. It’s a cross-city function that has totally transformed the way the city operates.

Now, it should be noted that each agency has unique functions, and it’s not possible to completely bring the knowledge of how to build all those different systems into one organization. So the actual development and support of mission-critical applications needs to reside within the agencies. The agencies themselves are still providing the services, [and] still responding to complaints and requests. What 311 does is provide a common front-end to access it all.

STATETECH: Are any major changes planned for 311?
COSGRAVE: Yes, there are changes planned in the manner that we handle service requests. We need to achieve more system integration between the 311 system and the traditional legacy systems so we can respond to callers faster when they want to check the status of their requests.

Because we still have five city agencies utilizing legacy systems, we have some different ways of doing that. We’re now in a 60-day strategic planning exercise to identify which areas need to be addressed first, based on Mayor Bloomberg’s priorities (i.e., reducing crime, reducing poverty, and increasing accountability, transparency and accessibility).

In addition to 311, many cities have a 211 service, which lets residents reach nongovernmental, not-for-profit agencies that provide human services. We’re integrating that with our existing 311 system so people have to make only one call.

STATETECH: Are you rolling out an E911 program?
COSGRAVE: We have a major ongoing program to bring in the Enhanced E911 environment. That’s our number-one priority. It’s part of our largest program right now.

It’s actually one project among 25 that we’ve grouped together in a major initiative called the Emergency Communications Transformation Program (ECTP). We’re putting in a whole new phone switch for the E911 calls and integrating the police and fire calls. Collectively, it’s the largest program and involves building a new service center and a backup center.

STATETECH: All managers have tricks in their bags to help manage execution. What’s your philosophy, and what are some of the tactics that you’ll put in place to ensure your plans are executed?
COSGRAVE: Have a good capital investment control process and make sure you have good business cases for the programs you want to accomplish. You need good controls in place for the programs you’re managing, and you need an enterprise architecture so that you’re not building everything as one-of-a-kind.

Without an overall architecture, programs tend to go off in many different directions. You walk into a data center and it’s like you’re in a museum of data processing — there’s one of every computer present. We’re working hard to address that issue and have made some progress in standardizing programs and technologies. We want to do more of that.

STATETECH: Your job is so big. New York City is the largest city in the United States. It’s a job everyone would want and no one would want. Why did you take it?
COSGRAVE: First, I like a challenge. Second, I’ve got a lot of family in this area. Third, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is one of the most successful business people in the country, and I like working for a strong businessman.

Government is historically not thought of as a business, but so much of government really is like a business. Having that business influence brought into government facilitates my role as CIO because I can make technology decisions on a business basis.

STATETECH: Do you consider cyberterrorism a real threat and is New York City adequately prepared to deal with a threat of that nature?
COSGRAVE: It’s a huge threat — there’s no question about it. IT security has to be foremost on my mind and the minds of anybody in our organization who’s dealing with systems and, for that matter, all our employees, right down to making sure that people are using properly protected passwords and things like that. Every employee has a role in protecting the government’s assets.

I’ve taken over responsibility recently to provide security policy for the entire city — a task that had been [the responsibility of] another city organization. Now that responsibility is part of my role.

In addition, I’ve elevated information technology-related security positions in our IT organizations to report directly to me.

Yes, cyberterrorism is absolutely on top of the list of things we’re concerned about. New York City has given good attention to it in the past, and we’re going to give it even more attention going forward.


IT background: 30+ years

Education: B.S., M.S. in Industrial Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N. Y.

Previous three jobs:
CIO, Internal Revenue Service Chairman, President and CEO, Claremont Technology Group, a systems integration company
Executive Vice President, Crown Consulting, a transportation solutions firm

Major restructuring and centralization of IT systems at Internal Revenue Service
Led a team that designed the Next Generation Air Transportation System at the Federal Aviation Administration

Lee Copeland is the editor in chief of StateTech.

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Oct 31 2006