CTO Download: San Leandro’s Tony Batalla talks emerging tech, best practices and pandemic-induced digital transformation

Tony Batalla is the chief technology officer and head of innovation & IT for the City of San Leandro, California


This interview was conducted electronically on May 20, 2020 with editing completed by mid-June.

San Leandro, California, is a large suburban town in Alameda County, with over 90,000 residents. Recently, Gov1 had the opportunity to speak with Tony Batalla, San Leandro’s chief technology officer and head of innovation & IT.

Tony oversees all aspects of technology management, including infrastructure, service delivery, data, and cybersecurity and serves as the senior advisor for City Council on technology issues and policy. Prior to government, he worked for numerous private sector firms, including a global biopharmaceutical company. He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson and a BS from the University of San Francisco.

Tony was also the co-chair of the Wireless SuperCluster in the NIST Global City Teams Challenge Program and co-authored Blueprints on Municipal IoT and Public Wi-Fi, which can be downloaded here.

From your perspective, how has IT’s role in government evolved over the last decade?

Batalla: I joined the public sector in 2014 after spending the first part of my career in the private sector. So, from my own experience, the most significant shift I have seen – and been a driving part of – has been to transform IT from a back-office tech support function with limited visibility to a strategic, fully integrated function focused on exceptional service delivery and innovating both core and customer facing business processes and services. In government, this has happened in the context of an explosion of “innovation” related roles, such as Chief Innovation Officer, etc. that have helped raise the profile of technology teams, staff, and departments.

As an IT civic leader what, are some emerging technologies that interest you and why?

Batalla: From a collaboration standpoint, Microsoft continues to impress me. Office 365 and the tools being added are frequently becoming part of core business processes. It’s common now for staff to create, share, and edit documents entirely online – bypassing local file servers altogether. That sounds simplistic, but that’s in fact a big change in how people create and manage data and opens the door to technologies like AI/ML as they become more integrated in Cloud services. It also integrates data across workloads while tying it into a secure fabric. It gives us a lot of flexibility in how we deliver IT services across the enterprise.

Chatbots have a huge potential to augment customer service. I’m hopeful that in the future, chatbots will be smart enough to answer phone calls, online chats, and emails from residents and solve their problems without ever needing a human to intervene. That would save countless hours. In my experience, the technology is just not there yet. The problem lies in “learning” your organization and rules in order for the technology to be effective. It’s easy to put a chatbot on your web page, but to make it so good, so knowledgeable of your organization that it can answer complex questions and truly reduce the need for staff intervention, well, that is an enormous uplift of developmental effort to get there and thus, right now, is a huge barrier to adoption. These backend integrations – making chatbots “smart” – hopefully will become much easier in the future.

IoT also has potential to transform our built environment as it become more integrated into the core infrastructure governments use, such as traffic signals, streetlights, and even the roads themselves. At some point, all of this infrastructure will be on an IP network and part of a “smart” system. When it works seamlessly and you don’t need heavy reliance on IT and data engineers to manage the system (which, we still do right now), then you will start to see mass adoption. However, again, we’re just not there yet.

When implementing or adopting new technologies, what challenges have you had to overcome? any best practices learned?

Batalla: The most important thing is to have the right people – tech and innovation people – at the table when decisions will directly or indirectly determine your technology system. For example, if your’re considering a smart street light system, you need to have your data, security & privacy, and networking folks there from the start (of course, this could all be one person – your CTO).

Nowadays everything is technology and it’s a common (and likely fatal) mistake to only bring in your tech folks after decisions have been made that dictate what the technology stack is and, as a result, how it can be utilized.

Can technology play a role in helping governments and its citizens during pandemics like the Coronavirus?

Batalla: I can answer this in two ways. The first is how technology enables governments to continue and even expand and innovate their operations during the pandemic. The second is how governments are using data to respond directly to the pandemic itself.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, was quoted saying “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” For government, in some cases, it’s been more like ten years’ worth. It is not hyperbole to say this is perhaps the biggest opportunity for digital transformation that government has ever seen.

Here are a few examples I’ve seen: organizational-wide adoption of digital signatures and routing; full deployment of teleworking services; digital community engagement (e.g., Zoom Town Halls, etc.); complete transition online of permitting and payments; a heightened focus on digital services for the community and efforts (and funding) to address the digital divide.

What the pandemic has given government is a sense of urgency that has catalyzed innovation in ways that usually take much longer to achieve. The question is, can we sustain it?

Batalla: In reacting directly to the pandemic and a government’s response, a great example of technology has been the use of location tracking to understand migration patterns; the effects of shutdown orders; and even contact tracing. For example, we have worked with a company called LotaData on data dashboards and analytics projects. They created a dashboard to visualize people movement in Italy that has helped government teams there understand the impacts of the virus and their response to it.

As a civic and technology leader, what keeps you up at night?

Batalla: I’m usually thinking about finding the change, the idea and implementation of it, that will make something go from good to great. But chasing innovative and breakthrough ideas can be in conflict with running your day-to-day operations and maintaining alignment and integration with your organization’s priorities. So I’m constantly balancing those things. For example, I maintain a mental roadmap of innovative ideas that I will go back to when the opportunity arises, but in the moment, I am more worried about our cybersecurity posture and the risk at any time of an attack.

Civic technology leaders who would like to participate in CTO Download should email editor@efficientgov.com.

Next: CTO Download: City of Columbia CIO on keeping up with digital natives, pandemic

Derek is a freelance writer, columnist and blogger. He is passionate about technology, and works with public sector customers on digital transformation programs.