Govlist Leaders Series: Chris Sorensen, Chief Information Officer

“That’s the greatest operational challenge in a city: it’s when you’ve got all these steps you’ve got to go through, you just can’t do it overnight.”

Chris is the Chief Information Officer at the City of Pocatello, Idaho. He previously spent more than 27 years in the United States Air Force.


Could you maybe kick us off by giving us a little bit of information on your background?

Chris: Okay, I served 27.5 years in the Air Force starting from the very earliest days of IT with word processors, some of the very first systems, up through installing the systems that supported our intel-gathering systems throughout the Pacific, to wrapped up everything in my last few years supporting professional education, military education. I retired a couple of years ago, and have spent the last 2.5 years here in the city of Pocatello as their CIO.


What was that transition like coming from the armed forces into local government?

Chris: I spent 27.5 years, so I knew the rules, I knew the regulations. Kind of grew up with them. Understood the procurement process, understood the security issues, had a clear understanding. Everything was pretty much black and white and, generally speaking, I had the money I needed to do stuff. Especially after 9/11; 9/11 just kind of opened up the wallet to support everything that we needed.

I left that and came to a city where, to be honest with you, it’s got a very, very tight budget. It’s been difficult. I think they get really tired of me saying, “You know, in the military they do it this way” because so often, it’s 180 degrees different from what we do here. So I try to learn not to say that too much and just learn how to live within the system. I find new ways to do things better without having it cost as much as it would cost under other circumstances.


It sounds like there’s a mentality around doing more with less.

Chris: Yep. That’s exactly how it is. Some systems you’re in bed with you, and you know that you can’t afford to get away from them. You’ve got to just live with it and, again, find smarter ways to do things better.


What are some waves of innovation that you see sweeping through local government IT that you find exciting, especially ones that you could realistically tap into based on budgetary constraints?

Chris: I think one of the neatest things that I see in our city that has so much room for growth is GIS. The Geospatial Information Systems just have so much capability and so much that you can build into them. We’re pretty robust here with what we have. It doesn’t reside in my department. I would have thought GIS and everything that supports it would be in the IT department, but it’s not. It’s actually over in our engineering department. In a way, it fits over there too, because the engineering and public works folks utilize all that information and data much more so than I would ever use it. There’s only a couple of layers that I’m going to be interested in but I think that’s one of the neatest things that cities have at their hands. We’re also very luck that our local community right now doesn’t really have a big push or desire for transparency or seeing things that other cities have to deal with. So I’m not dealing with a local population that’s demanding a lot from us right now. I appreciate that because in larger cities, that’s a challenge to get out there and make the data available to the citizens so they can use it. They can see it. They can know what’s going on, and then protecting it to a degree that you’re not releasing stuff that shouldn’t be released or saying things that could be misinterpreted if it wasn’t presented in the right format.


What has your experience been procuring new tools and technologies?

Chris: Boy, again, the system was so different in my old world. It’s just a matter of finding the right vendor and stuff. I have no shortage of vendors wanting to capture my ear because my phone just rings off the hook all day with vendors. To be honest with you, I have to push most of them to voicemail because if I were to answer every call from every vendor, I would go nuts. So many of them don’t realize, look I don’t have a budget for anything new, I’m very constrained with what I’m procuring, and I’m going to use existing contracts, state contracts that we piggy-back off of. Some of my local providers that might provide me a GSA pricing if it’s available that I can participate in, or some other procurement tool. My folks here have their chosen vendors and that’s who they go to and they’ve always gotten the best prices there. So when you maintain a relationship with a vendor, you can usually negotiate those things that you need.

It’s really hard for a new vendor to break into my realm. Unless it’s something, of course, that I have to go out to bid for. But again, with my price structures and with budgets I have, I don’t have a lot of money to have to go out and look for bids because I don’t do those big project items yet because we just can’t afford them.


What have been some of the challenges around the process of actually procuring those new tools?

Chris: Probably my biggest challenge, and again it’s new being in the city, is everything other than the day-to-day, routine stuff has to go to city council for approval. So you have this process where you have to go to a study session, you have to kind of educate them and teach them about why you need it, what it is you need, and then if they agree with it, you take it to a record council meeting where you actually present contracts and them approve the items. So you just can’t get an idea and the next week, go out and procure it because you have to go through these meetings and study sessions are only held once a month. Council months are held twice a month and then in the end, the only person in our city who’s authorized to sign any contract is the mayor. So everything has to go through our legal department before it gets to the council, it gets all the blessings, the documents get drawn up, then it goes to the mayor. The good thing is, once the council approves it, it’s usually the very next day it’s on the mayor’s desk and he’s signing off on it and it’s back to you. But it’s a minimum of at least two months to get any new idea through. And probably sometimes it’s six months to a year.

We started looking at an electronic time keeping system that would integrate with our existing ERP system and this morning just before I got on this interview with you, I was presenting for the fourth time to a study session. This time, though, was actually to reverse everything. We fought for it. It had been three or four months, went to three different sessions, and then afterwards, by the time I got their approval, the prices had gotten so high and they had added so many things to it, I couldn’t justify it any more. It’s like, I can not come up with a return on the investment that justifies spending this much money for it. So I was back there today saying I wanted to cancel the project. And then it was under the guidance of the mayor and the council saying, “Wait a minute. We told you to go ahead.” Yeah, it was a rather interesting session. That’s the greatest operational challenge in a city: it’s when you’ve got all these steps you’ve got to go through, you just can’t do it overnight.


How big does a purchase have to be in order for it to have to go through that, to get city council approval and the mayor’s signature?

Chris: If it’s not on a contract and I’m not buying off of a purchase card, you pretty much have to go to the mayor. If there’s going to be a contract signed. If I’m just buying something and making a payment that I can do on my purchase card, I can pretty much get away with that without having to go to the mayor. But again, if it’s a contract, especially if it includes yearly maintenance or support, that all has to go before them.


What’s your process for drafting up solicitation documents?

Chris: Well I’ve never solicited, I’ve only gone single source because I’ve been able to keep my prices under 50,000, which I can go single source on most of those. So it’s pretty easy. I’m in the process of doing one of my first ones where I’m writing up our power in our server room. We kind of maxed out all the power and I have to bring in some new 220 lines that we don’t have and new ups to support it. This is actually going to be the first one that I’m actually having to bid out. So, again, it’s just a matter of putting together the request for proposal. In this case, I’m going to be able to go out and just get at least three bids directly, I don’t even have to advertise it because I’ll still have it under 100,000, I think. But if we go over 100,000 on a pubic works project, then it has to get advertised in the newspapers and media and those kinds of things. I’ve never done one of those so I don’t know all the details.


What’s that informal competitive process been like?

Chris: Well, it hasn’t been too bad. Because it’s an electrical project, so our building manager has been working on it. He went out and brought in an electrical engineer who is actually drawing out everything and in this case. I’m able to have him go out and solicit the bids for me. So this one’s going to be fairly easy, I think.


What do you view as some of the goals or aspirations you’d have for the city?

Chris: My first big aspiration is getting our cyber security up to speed. I’ve got a few tools I’m going to bring in. We are part of a consortium or membership of an information sharing and analysis center for all the states and local governments. They provide lots of tools for us. Some of them are free, some of them are things they charge for. I’m taking advantage of everything that’s free but I’m working to take advantage of the things that you pay for, different intrusion detection systems and monitoring. That’s always my biggest concern. We have a local county here in the state that recently got hacked and they got infected with some malware or some ransomware. And it’s taken them a while to recover. They’re going to continue to recover for quite some time. That’s my biggest concern I have procurement-wise.

Again, getting this power system upgraded in my server room is another one. Another one on top of that is again this timekeeping system and getting us into the modern age. But when it comes to real overall kind of infrastructure, I’ve been really pushing to get fiber in the city and through the city. At one time, I thought I wanted us to become a fiber provider to the city, to the citizens, and then realized I just don’t have the manpower, the knowledge base, or anything to do that. Plus I have some really good local companies that can do that. So we worked some public, private type agreements where we work with them to get the fiber in place and we make it easier for them to get fiber when they need to get fiber to certain locations.

So those are my big areas that I’m focusing on and big projects. I try to keep them small enough that I get them through budget-wise and everything or peace-meal them up. But it’s a challenge sometimes. I wish I had a lot more money when it comes to the fiber side of the house so I can get fiber everywhere I need.

I have to take it off in such small chunks of time. I want to get fiber to this location. It just takes time and a little ingenuity and working with the contractors and we’re able to make things happen though.


Chris, do you have one or two pieces of advice that you would give to other CIOs in similar positions?

Chris: Boy, that’s a tough one. Take advantage of all the free resources that are out there. It’s amazing when I came on board here, how much time I spent out looking for things and organizations and things just provide unbelievable resources. Again, if you’re a local government, a state government, Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the MS ISAC, is a phenomenal resource. I can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t want to take advantage of. Through them, you get access to the SANS Institute and a lot of other tools and things that are available. Going to conferences, learning, listening to your peers, reading the trade rags, magazines, government technology magazine, it just goes on and on. So take advantage of all those free resources cause a lot of time you don’t have money to spend elsewhere. But there’s free training and just a ton of available information out there, you just have to go looking for it and spend some time reading it.

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