Laurie Panella – Milwaukee County
“It’s been crazy today,” says Laurie Panella, answering her phone for a Toggle interview. She’s just gotten out of a meeting on a new ERP system and needs to return a string of phone calls from the week before. “Oh, what am I saying? It’s been crazy the past two years because the IT department’s been in such demand.”
That’s how long Panella has been IT director and CIO for Milwaukee County. But she didn’t always intend to work in technology. Panella was chief of recreation and business development for nearly five years before switching over.
“When I first came over to the IT department, I told the CIO at the time that I wasn’t a strong technologist and he said, ‘Laurie, that’s not what I need.'”
The department already had strong technologists who could update networks, patch servers and introduce new software. What it needed was someone to help the other departments work cohesively and, in the process, modernize the county government.
So in 2010, she dove into IT, serving first as interim and then deputy CIO before becoming CIO in 2014. During that time, she and her team have been transforming the department and shifting its focus from buying powerful hardware and software, to making government more user-friendly and collaborative. This happens, in part, by using technology to make important information easily accessible.
More helpful, not just more powerful technology
One obvious example is the county’s new ERP system. Implementing the new system will be the largest IT project that Milwaukee County has undertaken; however, Panella says it’s important not just because it has faster and better features, but because it will put all financial and HR information in one place. This new, simplified and centralized system will make it easier for all departments to get information and collaborate with each other.
In Milwaukee County, Laurie Panella and her team aim are making data more accessible and life easier for employees and residents. From cutting clutter in administrative processes to helping at-risk youth find housing, she says the most profound connections in technology are between human beings.
The IT department makes information accessible for individuals as well as entire departments. In 2015, it equipped employee computers with communications software like Microsoft 365, Skype and Share Point, all of which encourage collaboration. Panella’s team then tripled the number of employee laptops, making staff more mobile and flexible.
“Changing from an IT-centric mindset to a people-centric one helps our clients do business by providing tools that help departments collaborate, improve processes and work more efficiently,” she says.
In each case, Panella says the speed and specifications of technology are secondary to the process of matching it to the needs of users. Similarly, she says rearranging data so it can be accessed broadly and easily is an essential, though difficult step in tearing down institutional silos.
Part of using technology to make government easier and more useable is improving processes prior to identifying technology solutions. For example, the IT department employs business analysists who meet with other departments and use Lean, or continuous improvement methodology, to help them work more efficiently.
Originally invented by Toyota to reduce waste and save costs in auto manufacturing, Lean encourages employees to remove steps and processes that don’t provide value to the customer, in this case both county departments and taxpayers.
Through Lean, several departments recently refined their processes for capital request, budgeting, hiring and procurement. Panella says it’s important to improve the human organization behind a process before implementing software to assist, calling it a misconception that IT departments can speed government up simply by automating how work is done. Before software comes into the picture, her team must sit down and improve the human part of the process in order to identify the future model that can be automated.
“Sometimes you’re just putting a bad process on steroids if you automate it the way it is,” she says.
Seeing the “full picture” of at-risk youth
Outside of government offices, Panella’s team uses a similar approach to making social services available to residents. The IT department recently took information on minors and their families from 32 separate databases in the Delinquency Court Services Division (DCSD) and compiled them in a single data warehouse with a front end reporting tool. The DCSD can analyze information in the warehouse for patterns, trends and correlations that it can use to create custom care plans for teens.
The care plan involves giving youth in juvenile detention a score that, in conjunction with the district attorney’s assessment, is used to determine what social services, if any, best suit them. In addition to guiding kids towards county and state services, the county can also put youth in touch with private or non-profit community-based organizations.
The new reporting tool will allow DCSD to assess the effectiveness of those private or non-profit community-based organizations. If organizations are not meeting young people’s needs, DCSD will provide training to improve their services.
Though the project was just finished in 2015, Panella says her team is still collaborating with DCSD to fine tune services and internal processes. The effectiveness of those services will be measured by reviewing recidivism rates over the next three years.
The IT department will also spend the next three years working with the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) to create a single case record for each child that includes information from all of DHHS’s divisions, including behavioral health, housing, disability services and DCSD.
Having one central record, instead of different records for each division, will create what Panella calls a “seamless support model” that reduces the time and effort required for a constituent to find the services that meet his or her needs.
“If you have a young person with mental health challenges who needs help with housing, we can connect them to the housing department,” Panella says. “If they have a parent who is unemployed or on food stamps, we can work with community organizations to help guide them.”
For Panella, the intent underpinning DCSD’s current program and DHHS’ future vision pushes back against another misconception: data reduces people in need to numbers.
Instead, she says that taking a people-centric approach to technology “also means focusing on people and providing better services to our residents.”
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