Corona, CA goes virtual to re-envision how government works
The city pioneered a cloud-based VDI system that allows for secure, remote operations and introduces the possibility of a flexible, on-demand local government workforce.
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Set near the San Andreas Fault in Southern California, the city of Corona occupies prime earthquake country.
This puts the possibility of a major disruption constantly top of mind for local government workers, and business continuity — the ability to keep the city running in the face of a disaster — has been a focus for years.
In March 2020, it wasn’t an earthquake that shut things down, it was a disease. Nonetheless, the city was prepared, having already moved about 80 percent of its systems to a cloud-based virtual desktop interface that Corona’s IT department had been piloting. Within 24 hours, the pilot became fully implemented, hundreds of city employees were sent home, and work continued.
Corona’s preparedness is a study in emergency and business continuity planning. But what’s more, it’s opening the door to a new vision of how local government can work — an on-demand, round-the-clock system that looks more like private sector customer service than a traditional eight-to-five government office.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with Chris McMasters to learn about how Corona is laying the groundwork for a more flexible government workplace.
Using cloud VDI to drive business continuity
When Chris McMasters, Corona’s Chief Information Officer, joined the organization, the city was backing up its data the same way most local governments did so: data was stored in a separate building, about five miles away from the main office. McMasters says:
“The city had a single internet line that ran all city services and within my first three weeks that line went down. So I got to experience what it was like having your whole infrastructure tied to a single point.”
Knowing that natural disasters and other disruptions were highly possible, McMasters and his team started looking for solutions to ensure the city could maintain continuity. They looked at what the private sector did — often multi-state corporations would place data centers in other states. But Corona didn’t have the funding for that, nor was there space to build something far enough away. So instead they turned to the cloud. Says McMasters:
“Within about two years we’re about 80 percent cloud-based and have removed a lot of the legacy infrastructure. We have multiple internet lines for redundancies.”
Once the Corona IT department started putting data in the cloud, a new question arose: how could they access it? Virtual desktops aren’t new, but given the security needs of local governments, they were traditionally paired with on-premise data centers. What if they could be paired with the cloud-based system Corona was adopting?
The city partnered with Citrix and Microsoft to give it a try. Says McMasters:
“We took those two technologies and merged them together, which is very different in the government space. It’s not something that’s been done a lot — or at all.”
As the City of Corona was piloting the new technology, the other corona hit.
Suddenly, the technology McMasters was piloting became critical to keeping the city online:
“Once we heard the city, county, and state were getting locked down, we sent people home and it was fast. Within about 24 hours we flipped the switch, and this thing that was a pilot became a full-fledged deployment.”
By searching for a solution to known emergencies, Corona was more prepared than many communities for widespread shutdowns and a shift to working from home — even if the source wasn’t expected. And it all happened a lot faster than McMasters expected:
“It accelerated the process for us and used a bad thing to do some good. It broke a lot of paradigms and created a catalyst for the city to change and the people to adapt a lot more quickly than we could naturally or organically.”
This change, it turned out, would set the stage for even more innovative thinking.
Shifting the nature of the government workforce
Like many local government leaders whose workforces have gone remote, McMasters is now considering what impact this new way of working could have on the public sector workforce. If Corona’s VDI-plus-cloud infrastructure allows workers to do their jobs remotely, why not continue this practice? McMasters notes:
“In the private sector, telecommuting is part of life — we’ve done it for decades at this point, and it’s a lot more sophisticated than it used to be. In the government sector, it’s still handed out as rations or a gift to people — it’s not used very widely.”
McMasters and his team started looking at the data. They quickly saw that workers were breaking from the traditional structure of the office-based work day. And they were just as productive while doing it. McMasters notes:
“We saw users who normally start their day at 7:30 am starting at 5:30 am. You also have users who don’t really end their day at 5 or 5:30, they’re ending their day at 11:30 at night.”
This suggests an enormous opportunity that would benefit both the local government workforce and citizens. McMasters explains:
“It opens the door for a more flexible workforce, which is a workforce that government normally hasn't had access to before.”
A normal 8-to-5 schedule doesn’t work for everyone — some people have children or parents to care for, or health concerns that keep them in one place. But if people can work remotely, and on their own hours, it opens up opportunities to hire people outside of the traditional office-based parameters. The pool of potential government employees suddenly gets much larger.
This would have significant benefits to the way local governments serve their citizens. With people working across more hours, government can become more on-demand. Now, instead of going to city hall during workday hours, residents could talk to someone remotely in the evening. Requests submitted at the end of the business day could be handled overnight. Says McMasters:
“There’s no reason we can’t work on your permit status in the middle of the night if we’re hiring someone who can work from home and do those sorts of things. It opens up a whole new realm of possibilities in how citizens get their services, how they interact, and the quality of services they get.”
Corona has implemented a large amount of change in a short period of time — and it’s leading to the potential for more innovation.
And while some cities may think this degree of innovation is most often reserved for the larger localities with more resources, McMasters disagrees. Medium-sized cities, he says, such as Corona (population 150,000), are the ideal drivers of innovation:
“I think we’re allowed to be a little bit more dynamic than the bigger cities. When I talk to my counterparts who are in the bigger cities like Boston, LA, and Las Vegas, it’s harder to turn that bus. It’s a much bigger bus. So when they implement it’s grander in scale and takes a lot longer to do.”
Corona and other mid-sized cities are more like mid-sized business. They’re small enough to be agile, but still have resources to deploy. They also have the ability to create strong partnerships with private companies — including some of the biggest names in Govtech. McMasters says:
“It puts us in a perfect spot to pilot things for others.”
Just as Corona has done with its groundbreaking cloud-VDI system, medium-sized cities should be stepping up to lead the charge in local government innovation. By piloting new technologies, building strong partnerships, and listening to trends from the private sector, these local governments can enact changes that will then be shared and applied more broadly — resulting in benefits beyond the city or county limits. That, says McMasters, is the true opportunity in local government innovation:
“That is the silver lining of government: The end-of-the-day feeling you get when you actually get to do something that changes people’s lives. And when you’re working with others to magnify and multiply those ramifications across the country, there’s no better feeling.”