CIOs on the front lines of public safety innovation

Matt Melton

Information technology (IT) in state and local government has often been seen as merely a support role in the mission of public safety – answering tickets, resetting passwords, and fixing or replacing broken hardware. In today’s high-tech, data-rich, fast-moving environment, that model no longer suffices if government is going to keep pace with changing citizen demands and threats to public safety. The challenge and the opportunity to build a mission-oriented data and technology strategy is too great for IT leaders to be passive.  

Chief information officers (CIOs) and their IT teams must be strategic leaders and contributors within agencies and across municipal governments. They form the mission-critical technical foundation for and connective tissue between government agencies managing complex technology systems and infrastructure, as well as massive amounts of data.  

Ensuring the safety and security of the community is no longer the sole responsibility of law enforcement, fire, and offices of emergency management (OEMs). The challenges communities face — from homelessness to violent crime — can only be tackled by leaders strategizing and collaborating across agencies, meaningfully combining information and expertise. Information technology leaders make that possible. 

I recently sat down with three CIOs who are strategic leaders and public safety innovators, representing state, county, and city governments: Kent Augustine, CIO for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety; Dave Fontneau, CIO for the Orange County (CA) Sheriff’s Department (OCSD); and Vanetta Pledger, CIO for the City of Alexandria, Virginia. Read on for their insights on modernizing IT operations in government. 

Understanding the user 

Advancing a public safety mission takes focus and a deep understanding of the needs of sworn and civilian personnel. “We remind ourselves why we're here. We're not here for IT, we're here for public safety. My job is to ensure that the people that work for Department of Public Safety have the information they need to do their jobs and to stay safe,” said Augustine.  

Fontneau agreed. “Behind the scenes, we are a support operation. Officers push the mic and the radio works, or they log into the mobile data terminal, and it works – that matters. The men and women that are on the front lines could not do their job without everybody behind the scenes.” 

Fontneau explained the best way to support the public safety mission is to understand the needs of the end user – the public safety personnel using the technology. He intimately understood their needs, spending more than 30 years of his career as a sworn law enforcement officer.  

That experience also allowed him to understand that merely making sure a radio or mobile data terminal (MDT) works was not enough. “We were living in the 80s,” Fontneau said, when speaking about the need to modernize OCSD’s technology stack. He explained his strategy to instill a culture of innovation. “Each team has their own tech lab in our innovation center, where we can meet with our customers, and see what they need.” With Fontneau’s law enforcement background and daily engagement with public safety personnel in the field, he can craft a technology strategy that supports public safety. 

“I need to be out in the field as much as I possibly can,” Augustine said, because “if we're talking about implementing something, I need to go out in the field and understand the challenges that our officers are having.” 

Pledger’s responsibility is broader – she works across all city government functions in Alexandria, Virginia, including police, fire, schools, libraries, parks and recreation, health and human services, and more. And her approach is similarly proactive and user oriented. “I focus on ease of use and ease of access,” she said. She explained how to get there: “I partner with all of them. I think about, what information do they need access to? How am I focusing on what technology we are delivering to make sure they can successfully use it to best do their job? I have in-depth conversations with law enforcement agencies and others to understand their problems and learn how they can best leverage technology to improve process and outcomes.” 

This deep understanding of user needs allows these CIOs to drive innovation, including seamless data sharing between agencies of all kinds in ways that were previously not technologically possible. 

Bridging the gap 

Government agencies need to share data if they want to work together. For law enforcement agencies, information that lives outside their systems could be mission-critical for investigations, emergencies, or daily operations, because crime is not bound by jurisdictions. And for public safety more broadly, each department has a role to play but they can only play that role well if information and expertise can be brought together seamlessly. 

Peregrine facilitates secure and efficient collaboration across law enforcement agencies – in three easy steps – ensuring data is only accessed by those with appropriate permissions. Find out how.

“We are broadly advocating to share our data,” Fontneau said. “What I love about the culture Kent [Augustine] and Vanetta [Pledger] are building is, it’s an open system.” When asked about what is causing the culture to shift, Fontneau replied, “the technology has evolved so with a modern stack, cloud-native technology, we can spin up solutions in a very short period of time...and that allows for data sharing...Technology is driving that culture along with thought leaders in this room and beyond.” 

Pledger deftly explains how data sharing across government agencies – even those untraditionally involved in public safety – supports communities. “I think about after school programs. What neighborhoods are having challenges with youth crime? Where do those people live, and what is their proximity to after school activities? If agencies can share data and partner, we can paint a better picture of our neighborhoods and solve complex problems. What if we could open the recreation center later, which curtails crime and actually have a safer community? You can’t come to that answer without sharing data.” 

But data sharing can’t happen without strong security and privacy protections. “You have to pay attention to the security controls that are in place, along with your own pen testing and vulnerability scanning and the like,” Pledger said. “Security by design and defense in depth are the two principles I think about.” 

Augustine agreed, “You have to think of data governance from the very beginning of a project.” And what he’s doing in New Mexico pursues a bold vision: secure, statewide information sharing between law enforcement agencies. “We have a lot of very, very small police departments with limited resources and siloed data. We want to enable these agencies to share data along with the larger departments across the state."

“It’s a significant culture shift within New Mexico,” Augustine concluded.  

Peregrine's end-to-end security controls ensure data is safe from external intrusions, and appropriately accessed and actioned only by agency-authorized department personnel. Learn more.

With a mission-focused and customer-centric approach, CIOs have the ability to execute a long-term and visionary data strategy. Kent Augustine, Dave Fontneau, and Vanetta Pledger show how IT teams can positively impact the safety and prosperity of their communities and citizens. If you want the same for your city, county, or state, drop us a line.  

Peregrine is built on AWS GovCloud (US). 

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