Technology’s duty in the public sector

Currently working as a Commisioner at the Privacy Advisory Comission, Gina Tomlinson spoke to Anand Thaker, CTO of Pulse Q&A, about her transition from working in the government to the private sector as well as the future of jobs in the age of automation.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.”

Anand Thaker: Hi, everyone. I’m Anand Thaker, CTO and cofounder of PulseQ&A. Today I’m speaking with Gina Tomlinson. Gina is a very accomplished IT executive. She’s currently the Commissioner at the Privacy Advisory Commission for the city of Oakland. And I’m very excited to be speaking with her. Gina, thanks for making the time.

Gina Tomlinson: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Thaker: So you’ve had a very interesting career, it looks like you had a big break in your role at SF MTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency). How was it being an IT executive in the government relative to the private sector? 

Tomlinson: Oh boy, it’s a complete 180. I never had public sector experience prior to that. My experience was completely private sector at the time. I had the opportunity to move over into the public sector, with a mentor of mine from the private sector. It was an amazing leap– a leap of faith–but also a complete difference in the way you do business. The way you deploy, implement, and enable technology for the government is so much different than the private sector. So it was quite a shift.

It shaped my whole perspective about technology and how it’s implemented and who it’s implemented for.

Thaker: I see. And how would you characterize the differences?

Tomlinson: It’s very consensus driven, which is not in and of itself a bad thing, but very consensus driven and not so much majority rules. We need a full consensus of the parties to move forward. I had to learn a lot more about building relationships.

Previously, in the private sector, I was assigned an initiative, assigned a budget and told to go forth and implement. In the government space, it was more about ensuring that the technology had tangible returns, tangible benefits, complete transparency; in the end, checks and balances. That we were actually doing the things that mattered to the community. What happened wasn’t just about implementing at that particular agency. It was about what the domino effect was to the community. It shaped my whole perspective about technology and how it’s implemented and who it’s implemented for.

Thaker: That’s very interesting and the customers are different. I personally have never worked in the public sector. But it sounds really interesting from how you describe it.

Tomlinson: It is very interesting and very rewarding. And I think if you have a passion for community or passion for paying it forward, I do highly recommend it. Because it will certainly feed that appetite. It makes you feel a part of the process. You want to be a part of the process.

Thaker: So what were some of the more difficult challenges that you faced as an IT executive in the government (and this includes your roles at SF MTA as well as the city council of San Francisco).

Tomlinson: I’d say getting the buy-in for implementing various technologies that we wanted to do. At the time 50 some odd agencies within the city and county of San Francisco.

So my time in the city was kind of split. I came into the city as the CIO. And then I later jumped to the more expanded role as CTO for the city and county. And my role now in the Privacy Advisory Commission is quite a different role. But I’d say that the most difficult thing about my work was in the city. Getting the buy-in, ensuring that we were implementing technology that had tangible purpose, and ensuring that there was lots of transparency with checks and balances, ensuring that there was lots of communication with the stakeholders, people in the community, people across city government across city hall, a lot of relationship building.

A CTO and a Chief People Officer. Yes, that’s now possible.

So with the technologies that we did, we were among the first municipalities that went to cloud email that was significant at that time. We were one of the first large municipalities that went to cloud Voice over IP. And we implemented some predictive next bus technology, we implemented that in San Francisco. Running fiber throughout the city. Several really groundbreaking initiatives that we were able to get done. We were able to do that building those important relationships. And that’s the biggest takeaway and learning for me with my time in government,

Thaker: How would you characterize your current role?

Tomlinson: The commission is a great opportunity. Especially in today’s world of data management, data privacy and breaches, we all are very much aware of various technology organizations doing various things. Here in the city of Oakland, the Privacy Advisory Commission was formed to to help ensure that technologies that come into the city of Oakland do not abridge first amendment rights. Secondly, rights of privacy and ensuring that our citizens are safe and secure and that their privacy is not breached. So we help ensure that technologies meet certain standards, and that fairly represents all the people in the city of Oakland.

I feel very blessed and privileged to have had the opportunity to work with them. But it’s very much a duty, if you will, to help ensure the privacy of our citizens, to ensure the cameras that are implemented are maintaining privacy, to ensure microphones and the technologies if they’re if they’re installed for certain purposes, that they are done in a safe, secure and respectful manner for citizens.

Thaker: That is very important. Because for a long time now, especially over the last couple of years, we’ve definitely been hearing a nonstop flurry of news in the media about privacy violations on one side, and then security violations on the other side. Governmental as well as private actors play a role to acquire data on private citizens. And I’m glad that cities are being proactive about this and putting in charge folks like yourself to take care of these issues.

Tomlinson: It’s very important. Our personal data is so readily available and out there. As the internet continues to grow, and as access to it continues to grow, I think just organically, more and more oversight and regulation will come as organizations like Facebook and Google and others are being fined for their data management practices. I think the next step that you’ll see is, is more regulation.

Here in California, as you know, there are some bills being presented in the state to help consumers manage and be compensated for the use of our data. Our data is being used for other resources and other services. We should know that we should be compensated for such. As this ‘data gorilla’ continues to evolve, I think there’s going to be a lot more regulation, a lot more legalities. And around managing it and ensuring that we the consumers are protected and can benefit as well from our personal data being so readily available.

Thaker: Do you feel like there’s a fragmentation with these privacy and security efforts being implemented from town to town as opposed to being regulated at a somewhat higher level? Because not all towns, counties and cities will have the resources to implement this. 

Tomlinson: A great question. I think that it will grow to that. We’re seeing things in its infancy. I think a lot of the larger or more progressive cities and areas of the country, this is our opportunity to get it right. I do believe that more consistent, unified state and federal oversight is coming. We fined Facebook $5 million and Google paid almost 200 million for their breach. I think as those things continue to be brought to bear, that there will be some level of federal oversight and mandate in place.

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We’re not there yet. But I believe that’s that is coming in short order. And I think there should be some consistency to help regulate that and to help manage that. For the smaller cities that may not be able to afford such things, I think an across the board mandate to help enable those types of things would would be very helpful.

Thaker: You mentioned Google and Facebook and the fines that have been levied on them as a result of some data breaches. Looking at your experience, you’ve been on the US government innovation board at Google for the last couple of years, I was wondering how you got on the board and what sets you apart from your colleagues in that position?

Tomlinson: I was asked by the leadership in Google to be on the board. And it stemmed from my prior role as CTO of San Francisco. What Google was attempting to do was develop an advisory board of executive level IT leaders across the country, in government, because Google wanted to strengthen their bench strength in the government space.

The contemporaries–Microsoft, AWS and others–were doing a better job. Google was lagging behind So they’ve really leveraged us to help them navigate the waters; the odd and unique waters that is IT government and to learn how to approach certain organizations to learn how to speak the love language. To do various things to try to reach this unique audience and best understand their needs in a language that they understood and feel comfortable with.

Thaker: Where do you think the role of the CIO is headed to in the future? Is it going to be different in the future in the public versus private sector? 

Tomlinson: I think the role of the CIO is evolving. The role of the CIO is more about business. It is becoming more and more about the business, less and less about technology implementation, but also thought leadership and technology, integration into the business. I think the hands on day-to-day need of a CIO will shrink and become more service based or subscription based.

Because as things become more virtual, less hands on and more cloud based, I think

that the role of the CIO will have to evolve and mature as well. I think that the typical CIO role

will be dated in the very near future. And those of us who play in that role, I think we have to begin to prepare ourselves for the advent of a more forward-thinking strategic type of role and far more thought leadership type of roles. I think as AI and automation continues to grow the CIO will have to evolve, as the technology comes more to the forefront.

Government is always a little bit slower. So I think that it’s going to be a slower wheel to turn.

But it is coming. The government’s CIOs have to stay current, stay relevant and really do things to build a breadth and depth of knowledge about current technologies, because the role is going to evolve. It’s happening in the private sector and that will trickle down to the public sector. And impact the public sector CIOs as well.

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