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Lessons from Seattle’s years-long effort to consolidate IT workers from different city departments into a single agency.
Consolidating IT teams from different city departments is no easy task, but by clearly defining staff roles and services, agencies can set themselves up for success, one city official says.
In May 2015, Seattle’s then-Mayor Ed Murray announced more than 700 IT staff in the city would be streamlined into a single department, called Seattle IT. It was “a really difficult initiative and really painful for a lot of people,” said Michal Perlstein, Seattle IT Department’s digital engagement senior manager.
Perlstein leads the Digital Engagement Team, which maintains the city’s communications products such as government websites, blogs and social media. The team also manages user experience for public-facing web applications.
Speaking May 16 at the Code for America Summit in Washington, D.C., Perlstein said the consolidation was “an exercise in change management.” Newer staff like Perlstein had no attachment to past processes, but staff members who had spent years following the same business practices may have found the transition, which started in 2016, jarring.
Before consolidation, each city department had its own IT staff and systems and only collaborated when necessary. “They were not a defined cohort in terms of staff development and competencies. There was no alignment of systems processes and standards, and there was a lack of enterprise-wide tools,” Perlstein said.
So when Seattle IT’s Digital Engagement Team grew from seven team members to more than 20 under the consolidation, it was crucial to build a unified team. One step was to align expectations by creating a standardized service catalog that defined individuals’ job descriptions and responsibilities, she said. This helped staff better understand their shared objectives and capabilities. The team also created an internal mailbox to provide “centralized team visibility” on projects as well as to archive conversations to inform future projects.
There are no-tech ways to build comradery, too, Perlstein said. When the digital team had to move into a single office space together, instead of being dispersed throughout different buildings and floors within the city, staff members had the opportunity to decorate their office space with pieces from the city’s art gallery collection, “so people felt really attached to our floor,” she said.
Another way is through peer recognition awards. Every month, a staff member is identified for their impactful work or “something silly,” Perlstein said, like winning the limerick writing competition. Whether the award is given for professional work or something lighthearted, peer recognition is vital to fostering a collaborative environment, she said.
Over the last six years, Perlstein learned that the consolidated, in-house digital services team helped improve the user experiences of city services, as staff members brought expertise and knowledge from their separate departments under one roof. For instance, the IT staff created fictional personas of members of the city’s population, such as seniors, immigrants and renters. The detailed descriptions identified common characteristics, needs and challenges the group members face so that IT staff could better understand how to tailor digital services for them.
A consolidated IT department is better suited to designing and implementation of citywide digital solutions, rather than each department trying to tackle projects by themselves, she said. Plus, she said, it is also a better use of funds because the city can rely on fewer vendors to complete projects.
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