CTO Download: ICMA’s Hughes on Cybersecurity & Urban Innovation

ICMA’s CTIO Xavier Hughes reflects on innovation at the U.S. Department of Labor as well technology’s challenges and opportunities for local governments.


International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Chief Technology and Innovation Officer (CTIO) Xavier Hughes recently shared his thoughts on the technology evolution taking place across government and the potential impacts on local municipalities.

ICMA provides 11,000 cities, towns and counties with data and information, peer and results-oriented assistance and training and professional development. In creating the CTIO in 2018, ICMA aims to provide greater awareness and advice on smart cities and modern e-government to its members, as well as attendees at its annual conference September 23-26, 2018, at the Baltimore Convention Center.

What would you consider to be your most significant achievement or success when serving as CINO with the US Department of Labor?

Hughes: Having spent six years as part of the Obama administration, I had the privilege of participating in several great efforts to improve the federal government’s product development, service delivery and operational excellence.

When I arrived at the U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. DOL), I discovered an 18,000 person organization that was struggling to capitalize on its passion and commitment to the mission -- they simply lacked the operational and technological tools and sophistication to succeed. U.S. DOL was ranked second to last from a data-driven, evidence-based way of management. Under the leadership of former Acting Secretary Seth D. Harris, I along with folks like Natalie Palugyai, Demetra Nightingale and Nancy Rooney, were able to transform DOL into the #1 data-driven, evidence-based organization across government in just two-years time.

We acquired the right human talent and technology solutions to be able to measure, evaluate and pivot if necessary. We researched and learned from non-profit organizations, think tanks, even foreign governments (Germany) on how to be best-in-class.

In the process, we were able to substantially lower costs, streamline service delivery, optimize operations and transform our culture into one of transparency, facts and efficiency. Every number became a live data point. Every anecdote, supporting evidence. Every customer, a measure of success. This effort impacted every aspect of our organization, from a people, process, policy, data and technology point of view; I consider it our most precious legacy.

Are there any experiences or lessons learned from your time with the U.S. Department of Labor that you feel will be an asset in your new role as CTIO with ICMA?

Hughes: You pick up a lot of good habits over six years, especially when you are working side-by-side with some of the world’s best public servants. I learned patience, persistence and a strong appreciation for the typically grossly under-appreciated federal government work. Having worked on both the private and public sector at reasonably high levels, I can tell you that both groups work equally as passionately and hard. The myth that federal workers are lazy and undisciplined is just that, a myth; simply untrue.

In terms of helpful work experiences, having led Presidential-level initiatives taught me a great deal about becoming an effective communicator, and the need to sometimes push back hard, regardless of stature or personality. Some call it courageous leadership, I call it being an honest partner. When it comes to work, there is no room for ego, just room for effective results.

What are the primary challenges you hope to help address with ICMA?

Hughes: First and foremost, I have a responsibility to our 12,000 members, and want to make sure that from a membership aspect, they have full digital and operational access to all of the value and benefits we offer, regardless or access point. Second, each of our members and their communities should be able to benefit from our comprehensive urban innovation agenda across people, process, policy, data and technology sectors. No matter what you are trying to accomplish, ICMA will have your back as a trusted and knowledgeable partner throughout your journey. Our members are evolving, and so are we.

When thinking about emerging technologies changing the way local governments do business and serve its citizens, are there any parts of the “digital revolution” that keep you up at night?

Hughes: Cybersecurity. Most of us have heard what happened in Atlanta; a cruel ransomware attack crippled the city to a crawl, with little regard for critical services and human lives. That is why ICMA is working hard with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and technologists to create a new model of cyber-protection that will be rolled out in the coming months. We are very excited and you should be too.

What aspects of local governments utilizing technology in a greater capacity have you most excited?

Hughes: I am really excited about the evolution of mobility and location-based services in urban spaces, and their impact on healthcare coverage. Healthcare coverage is beginning to change thanks to the use of mobile phones and democratization of healthcare service delivery, regardless of location. These days, you can receive healthcare services via your smartphone (see One Medical or Prescription Check), as opposed to having to go outside of your home for basic services. The evolution and adoption of autonomous vehicles and drones throughout our communities will also add great value – such as immediate and convenient prescription deliveries and just-in-time transportation to healthcare facilities.

The future is not scary, it’s actually really exciting and people are really going to benefit from all of these emerging technologies and practices.

Knowing that our readers are mostly leaders within local governments, are there are final thoughts you would like to share?

Hughes: You are the heartbeat of America. Without your leadership and guidance, we are a rudderless ship. Never forget that. As such, it is our responsibility to empower, advise and support you however necessary, so the right decisions are made, in the most cost efficient manner, while delivering the highest value the market can offer for our communities. And ICMA will accompany you every step of the way.

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