How Salt Lake City’s Innovation Team Is Building a Better Government

How do you update decades-old technology, policies, and practices to better serve your constituents? We talked with the Innovation Team for Salt Lake City—Utah’s state capital and most populous city—to learn more.

A crisis often shines a spotlight on what needs to be fixed in government and society. For Salt Lake City, the pandemic revealed both a digital divide in its communities and a government that needed to be more agile, streamlined, and modern. 

“There’s no denying that 2020 completely changed the way we work as a city with the people we serve,” said Mayor Erin Mendenhall in a recent virtual panel discussion. “It highlighted the need to improve our public transparency, streamline inefficiencies that exist in city hall, and promote our use of data to drive our decisions in city government.” 

The complexity of the city’s technology and processes, however, challenged the digital transformation that Mayor Mendenhall had envisioned. There were 30 different software systems across 18 siloed departments, and the core financial system was 27 years old.

“We went from five weeks to give a merit increase to one hour, 21 minutes, and 36 seconds.” 

Nole Walkingshaw Chief Innovation Officer Salt Lake City

In 2021, Mayor Mendenhall created a new team in the information management services department to address these challenges: the Innovation Team. The group focuses on implementing major projects that simplify the city’s internal and public-facing processes and modernize its technology.

The Innovation Team’s first mission is to “oversee an integrated software system [Workday Financial Management and Workday Human Capital Management],” said Mayor Mendenhall. “This changeover promises to be a gamechanger for how basic city functions like payroll and accounting operate.”

The innovation team is also helping build out a digital infrastructure and policy citywide as part of the mayor’s digital equity and inclusion effort to make technology more accessible—“helping people fully participate in society, school, democracy, and the economy.”

To learn more, we talked with some of the folks that make up the innovation team: Chief Innovation Officer Nole Walkingshaw, who brings two-plus decades of experience in technology and city government. Innovation Team Lead Elizabeth Buehler, who has 18 years of experience in planning and civic engagement roles in government. And Senior Innovation Consultant Hailey Leek, who built a career in community outreach and grassroots organizing before working for Salt Lake City.

Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Nole (Walkingshaw), can you share more about your role and the team?

Walkingshaw: I’m the chief innovation officer helping lead the team into new transformation projects for the city. We have a history of taking on big projects in Salt Lake City and being successful. 

I was very deliberate in how I wanted to build the innovation team. We’re a mix of technologists and people who understand communication and policy development. We set up specific roles and expectations for team members and tried to build a core project management team with strong facilitation skills. We needed to develop the ability to keep bringing people together, over and over again, even when it gets hard.

We’re like an internal civic engagement team, and moderate and mediate to try to bring the whole city together on this Workday project. We’re disassembling 30 different pieces of software across many workgroups, and we’re mindful of being inclusive about who participates so it’s not built in a vacuum. 

What does innovation mean for Salt Lake City?

Buehler: Innovation in Salt Lake City is more than just technology. It’s looking at how we can implement government best practices for our city. A lot of that is software as a service (SaaS), as that’s becoming mainstream, but it’s also about improving policies, practices, and business processes to make sure we’re ready to serve our constituents and our residents as Salt Lake City grows into its next chapter. 

We have great teams in Salt Lake City who care about applying new best practices in their field to improve the city for the better. Now, the innovation team can do that citywide. We tackle projects at the top of the mayor’s priority list, so we keep improving the city to make it a better place to live and work. 

Leek: Local government provides a lot of the solutions to tough problems and direct access to decision-making. Salt Lake City is an important mecca of progressive programs and policies in our state.

Sometimes there isn’t space for civil servants to be innovative because there’s money and risk involved, and no one wants to hear their tax dollars are going to waste. The innovation team works on projects that impact every city employee from the police department to the airport. We make sure that Salt Lake City employees have the resources to do a great job and be responsive. 

What challenges did you experience before Workday?

Walkingshaw: While I was the deputy director of public services, we assembled all of the operations and maintenance for the general fund into one system. Prior to that, we had five different work groups using five different work systems using five different data models. 

We wanted to improve our ability to develop and maintain our capital assets. And when you don’t have great information, you run off of anecdotes or political persuasions. We say we want to make data-driven decisions, but we haven’t had the data to make those decisions. 

“The Innovation Team works on projects that impact every city employee from the police department to the airport.” 

Hailey Leek Senior Innovation Consultant Salt Lake City

We had this big conglomeration of technology that was basically failing. Our core financial system was implemented in 1993. We couldn’t take capital operations and management any further with the technology we had in place. We needed to be where we truly wanted to be—responsive and responsible for billions of dollars in assets.

Why did you choose Workday specifically?

Walkingshaw: There were three factors that went into our decision-making. 

One was having a common database. There are a lot of vendors that offer different systems under the same brand. For example, they have this one module—an old piece of technology—that was once called “x” but is now being added to newer technology. But it’s still not a common database or data structure. Having a common database was important to us because we saw the power of that with the software we had used to manage our physical infrastructure assets. 

We also knew that user experience was really important. And the user experience in Workday is exceptional. 

And the third factor was the delivery assurance program, which was critical because I’m going to have this constant lifeline. Workday can make sure we’re using it right. They’re going to protect us from ourselves in a way. We’ve seen it so many times when we do all this custom configuration. Things really become out of whack, and we end up doing a bunch of rework. Going into this project, we’ve used the phrase “business process realignment,” as we need to change how we do things—not expect the system to do the same things that we do today. We’re not implementing a new system to build the same button. 

How do you successfully manage change to get people to buy in to Workday?

Leek: Our team focused on communication and training for this project. Besides email, the city had no unified way of communicating with every employee until Workday solved that. Employees can now access Workday from any device, any time and anywhere. 

We also had to make sure people wanted to use Workday, so we built a whole network of change champions that relayed information back to their teams. We have 18 unique departments with different shifts, jobs, and computer access. With some departments, half their workforce doesn’t sit in front of a computer every day. We needed to reinforce why Workday was important to the city—we’re trying to combine decades old systems into one to make their job easier. 

The training lead team has done an incredible job of making training accessible for our 3,000 employees. People felt confident and were able to log on the second Workday went live. A huge piece of change management is ensuring people feel secure and understand that this change is only going to impact their job for the better. 

Buehler: We’ve had previous enterprisewide software implementations that haven’t been as successful as Workday has been. That’s because, before, we looked at software as a purely technical matter. All we cared about was the technical functionality. We didn’t think about adoption and how to get people excited.

This time, we focused on change management from the beginning. Our first step in late winter of 2020 was training the core project team. We collaborated with our end users—immediately addressing any resistance—to make sure we addressed what they needed from an ERP [enterprise resource planning] system. 

We met with department directors, the human resources team, and the finance team, and learned what does and doesn’t work for them. What are they hoping for from this new system? What problems did they have in the past not only with software but also with change in the city? It was really about communication and a lot of facilitation, too.

Walkingshaw: We did a lot of that work before we selected a vendor. We really communicated why we needed to do this, although the need was fairly well known. We brought people along in the decision-making process. It wasn’t: “Here you go, this is what you get.”

Can you share a quick success story?

Walkingshaw: We’re only 10 days into using Workday, but we’ve already had successes. One example is compensation adjustments. If we want to give someone a merit increase, we have a salary action request form. 

I’ve asked a handful of folks in leadership positions what was the fastest salary action request they could process, and it was five weeks. And that’s if you really were successful and you were really diligent. 

Now we’ve improved considerably. In one example, we started the request on Tuesday at 11:40 a.m. and it was approved at 1:01 p.m. that same day. We went from five weeks to give a merit increase to one hour, 21 minutes, and 36 seconds. 

We had a vacancy on our team, so I needed to complete the termination and prepare for the recruitment. Before, that would have taken three or four different pieces of software and taken over two weeks to process, if we really would have pressed. But now, by the end of the day, that termination sequence had been completed. As soon as that termination sequence was completed, people were able to apply for the posted job because we had the requisition ready to go.

Any advice for other government leaders looking to go through this type of transformation and integrate new tech?

Buehler: Think about your employees as clients. Don’t try to steamroll them. Get them excited about the transformation. Make sure that they’re part of the integration as they’re the key to adoption. Make sure they’re included from the beginning because you’re going to have pockets of resistance. We’ve been through this many times before. We’ve implemented software on a technical level before, but then people went back to using their spreadsheets. 

What will happen next in 2023 and beyond for governments in general and Salt Lake City specifically?

Walkingshaw: Software as a service is the direction cities and governments are going. We’re all moving to that kind of software. The implementation process for SaaS is far different than the implementation process of building complex configurations in-house. 

What you’re seeing here in Salt Lake City is not going to be unique in a few years. And when Salt Lake City takes on other big enterprise projects, we will follow a similar model. We’ve learned that there has to be someone that supports the technologists’ ability to be successful and helps them communicate and bridge facilitation between teams. 

Leek: Connectivity will improve. Our departments had static org charts before, but with Workday we have a dynamic flow of the entire city now: who reports to who, who’s on what team. It’s been an amazing opportunity to work with folks from around the city and to see how we’re collectively working together to make Salt Lake City a great place to live, work, and play. We’re working on the same goal, and we all want easier processes and to save some time. It’s exciting to realize that while we’re all doing different things, we all have a more unified way of getting things done.

“Think about your employees as clients. Don’t try to steamroll them. Get them excited about the transformation.” 

Elizabeth Buehler Innovation Team Lead Salt Lake City

Workday has also given us opportunities to implement Salt Lake City’s goal of being a respectful and inclusive work environment. For example, now we can update our pronouns, our preferred names, and gender identities. It’s a changing world and we never had a system that recognized our diverse workforce.

Buehler: It will create transparency. When we bring Workday finance online, the reporting tools will help. On a previous initiative, it took a team of four two solid weeks to pull together a spending report because of different project types in different departments. 

Now in Workday, an initiative can be given a worktag. Boom—we can tell our city council and our constituents, “Here you go. This is what this special money has done in the past three months.” What used to take two weeks, we can do instantly in a single report. This will help us be a transparent government. And as we move to performance-based budgeting, showing where that money is going is so important to our constituents.

To learn more about how Workday helps governments drive digital transformation, visit our website.

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