In Jefferson County, Colo., Innovation Program Manager Marlin McDaniel heads a team focusing on technology projects that could improve the lives of county citizens and digitalize processes for county employees. McDaniel founded the innovation program in 2018, and since then he’s worked within the county to spearhead initiatives that also have supported state cybersecurity efforts.
StateTech Managing Editor Mickey McCarter interviewed McDaniel about ongoing initiatives and measurable success in his county’s innovation efforts.
STATETECH: Tell us about your work for Jefferson County.
MCDANIEL: The primary focus for our group is to manage digital transformation, to explore emerging technologies for new uses that make the lives of our community members better, easier and more effective when they interact with government, as well as employees when they’re working through their daily jobs. I personally have a team of four professional staff.
Right now, I also have eight interns working on a variety of projects that are all focused on digital transformation. We bring on bright, talented students from our local universities. Essentially, they’re looking for trends and they’re looking at ways of using our existing technology, building business cases around them and prototyping them. They may look at digital voice assistants and how we could use Amazon Alexa to provide sustainability information to community members, or robotic process automation and leveraging tools like Automation Anywhere to automate routine tasks for our employees.
We have our internship programs and we have our employee innovation programs. We also have process improvement training, human-centered design academies that we facilitate to provide employees with the tools and techniques for their day-to-day jobs. We ran an academy called Idea Starter. We actually influenced a whole-of-state cybersecurity effort.
Click the banner below to receive curated cloud content by becoming an Insider.
STATETECH: Can you elaborate on that effort?
MCDANIEL: Through our human-centered design program, we were able to work with Jill Fraser, our CISO, and pull in partners from across the state, whether they were federal partners and other local governments. We came together to build a plan to figure out how the state of Colorado could bring cybersecurity resources to under-resourced organizations.
How can we as state of Colorado information security professionals come together to support others in incident response? How can we also achieve economies of scale as a state of Colorado group of information security professionals to reduce the cost needed to procure the technologies needed to secure our systems? This is an ongoing effort still. The state Office of Information Technology has been working with this group to submit grants and form consortia to support this whole-of-state effort.
LEARN ABOUT: How Coral Gables, Fla., CIO Raimundo Rodulfo is implementing smart city initiatives.
STATETECH: What are you particularly proud of achieving so far in digital transformation?
MCDANIEL: Our Unified Cellular Services Program. At the county level, procurement is a challenge in the sense that when there are similar services needed across the county, you don’t necessarily get a unified purchasing effort across departments due to various challenges. We were using cellular service for various needs, whether it was the sheriff’s office and its patrol vehicles or actual phones in the hands of caseworkers calling their clients.
We did extensive evaluations with some routers from Cradlepoint. We worked with partners like Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T. We conducted a comprehensive evaluation and study of who could provide the best services to the county that would also provide value. We had routers and fleet trucks and patrol vehicles pinging cell towers over the course of the month to aggregate and collect data on the persistence of service, level of service and connectivity in the county.
The county is relatively large compared to our counterparts. We’ve got about 770 square miles of territory to cover next to neighboring Denver, all the way out to the mountains and south toward Colorado Springs. That effort took about two years to collect the data we needed to make informed decisions that weren’t in conflict with public safety and degradation potentially, or public service. So, we were able to unify county services under one purchasing contract agreement with T-Mobile. That saved the county $2.1 or $2.2 million.
STATETECH: We hear you’ve done a lot of innovating with chatbots.
MCDANIEL: This was a collaboration between several members of the innovation team and the Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Our motor vehicles department was receiving 170,000 calls per year. A lot of it was requests for information. How do I renew my driver’s license? How do I renew my tags? What do I need to do if I lost my license plate? And call center staff are basically strapped. So, we deployed, in partnership with our clerk and recorder’s office, a chatbot to help triage some of those requests that don’t necessarily need immediate human intervention. Now, the chatbot actually handles about 55 percent of interactions that would otherwise have come through phone calls.
EXPLORE: How public energy utilities are optimizing citizen services through mobile apps.
STATETECH: That example makes me think of how the pandemic accelerated digital transformation across local governments. What’s your perspective on the impact of the pandemic on adopting new technologies for citizen services?
MCDANIEL: Has COVID-19 accelerated the pace of digital change? Really, the mission behind our innovation effort is to make county services accessible in the digital format. In all respects, people shouldn’t have to come into county buildings. This should be by choice for equity of access. You should be able to be served digitally if that’s your platform of choice. So, chatbots are definitely a light-year step forward for the county in terms of how we deliver services.
Automation is one of the main strategies our business innovation technology department as a whole has for the county. We’ve really taken a deep dive into how we can help our business owners, our customers in the community and process owners within the county government itself. How can we help them automate their internal processes so that they don’t need to be in the office to conduct important business?
We also look at digital transformation in terms of the environment and access to parks and spaces that cultivate health and well-being. Post-COVID, traffic has definitely returned, which is why we’re taking a deeper look into our innovation zone effort, perhaps designating portions of our transportation infrastructure to pilot and test solutions like adaptive traffic signaling. We don’t have active efforts in this space now, perhaps other than trying to connect traffic signals to a network so that we can transmit data between them. But we have our eyes on issues pertaining to mobility in the future.