Data Driver

GovOps Secretary Marybel Batjer on data security, the silver tsunami and enhancing government efficiency

Back Q&A Mar 19, 2018 By Rich Ehisen

When Marybel Batjer left her C-suite position with Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas to run California’s newly-created Department of Government Operations in 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown tasked her with a big mandate: Make the Golden State’s government more efficient. Five years later and recently named one of Governing magazine’s 2017 Public Officials of the Year, Batjer sat down with us to discuss what she’s done to make that a reality.

When you speak about improving government operations, you prefer the term ‘effective’ over ‘efficient.’ What drives that distinction and why is it important?

“Whether you’re in the private sector or the public sector, you have to measure performance in order to know if you are successful.”

Coming out of the recessionary period, all we heard in both the private and public sectors was how we all had to work smarter. We all had to do more with less, to be more efficient. But really it was all just cutting, and it took on a really negative connotation for a lot of people both in and out of government. I don’t think that’s what [Gov. Brown] wanted. I think he wanted government to be more effective in what they’re charged to do for the people of California. So I just feel that effective is more meaningful and is really what the governor and I feel this agency is charged to do.

You are an advocate of performance management, which is data-driven. How does this work with a government agency as opposed to a private sector company?

It’s pretty similar. Whether you’re in the private sector or the public sector, you have to measure performance in order to know if you are successful. The question is: Are we using it to accurately measure ourselves and to fulfill the roles and responsibilities as we are assigned? I’m finding a hunger for it [among agencies]. Sometimes people do sort of scratch their head at the idea, so we show them a visualization. Using their own data we can easily show them trends or other key information within seconds … what they and their teams have produced, to determine whether they’re meeting the mark of their responsibilities. We don’t do enough of that in terms of processes within state government.

All levels of government are staring down the ‘Silver Tsunami,’ the retirement of the baby-boomer workforce that has staffed the public sector for generations. One of your goals is to fundamentally change how state government recruits, hires and retains young workers. How is that effort going?

We’ve made strides — for example, our NxtGov networking program, which was developed by one of our millennial staff members here. NxtGov has 120 people in it now, mostly millennials, who are there to support each other in public service. I turn to them for help on a regular basis. For example, asking them to sit down as a test group for our new computer program system at California Department of Human Resources. So we rely on [them] and others to look at our onboarding and our new programming and to tell us what works and doesn’t.

You have spoken about the need for government projects to come in on time and on budget, but also added an important third component: user satisfaction — with those users being the people of California. Where should state government be most focused on improving value to the end user?

I can’t think of a point where we shouldn’t be focused on it. If we don’t, our fellow Californians are going to find a way right over us in the same way we have as citizens in our neighborhoods with Nextdoor, which just leapt right over the police departments and fire departments and the animal care people and even your HOA because we just said let’s all form a community. I think our statutes and our regulations need to catch up to this, as well. If we don’t make tasks like going to the DMV a much more [digitized], quick and efficient experience, people will eventually rebel.

Technology moves very quickly; government tends to be just the opposite. What are we doing to bring California government up to speed with technology?

It starts with leadership and I think Amy Tong is the finest CIO and director of technology we’ve ever had. Under her leadership, and in conjunction with a lot of teamwork and some ideas from Code for America, we’ve changed how we procure IT projects and how we manage them … We’ve also recently consolidated 36 of our IT classifications down to nine. We took those classifications and modernized them. We had to make sure that the people who are in them today have a solid career ladder to follow, and that no one was harmed in terms of their classification and their career ladder and compensation. That is huge because it impacts 10,000 employees in state government. It’s going to allow us to be more flexible in recruitment, in hiring and in the clearer career path our IT people have.

How would you characterize California’s level of data security and what are we doing to improve in that area?

Some of those new classifications are in data security. We’ve worked hard to improve in that regard, which really goes to how and who you recruit. I give great credit to the governor’s vision in creating the California Cyber Security Integration Center, which is our main cybersecurity center. Now we have our IT people, the [California] Highway Patrol, the Military Department and the Office of Emergency Services all co-located so we have both instant information gathering and dissemination. Cybersecurity is the biggest challenge we all face, both for government and the private sector.

You have spent significant time in your career in both the public and private sectors. How has each of those influenced what you are doing now?

I think my government experience better informed my private sector experience. I was in government relations in a highly regulated company, so knowing how government works really served me well … I’ve been a staff person and I’ve led departments at big agencies. I’ve been a chief of staff to a governor, I’ve been a cabinet secretary to a governor. Each one of those positions really helped to inform me how things work or don’t work. And at the end of the day it’s all about how you work with colleagues and how you either inspire them or they inspire you. It’s all about relationships. I struggled sometimes in my private sector jobs because the C-suite didn’t really understand how important those relationships were.

You have spoken of the need for government to be more visionary. In what way?

When we talk about civil service improvement, what is our objective? What do we need to do as managers, supervisors and leaders in government that helps us prepare for tomorrow in all the things we do? If I’m at the Department of General Services, how is my procurement process working? Should we have a vehicle fleet where our people are able to go and rent cars like you do in the private sector? If so, maybe we want to be sure we are getting cars that are zero emissions vehicles. Or how are we going to meet Gov. Brown’s very rigorous environmental sustainability goals? You’ve got to think about new ways of doing things. We weren’t going to make some of the building sustainability goals by just retrofitting old buildings. Again, if we don’t think digitally for our fellow Californians then we’re going to be left in the dust. 

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