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Detroit Water and Sewerage Department: Innovation at a 180 year old Startup

By Dan Rainey, CIO, City of Detroit

Dan Rainey, CIO, City of Detroit

What was Will Never Be

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has provided drinking water and wastewater collection services to the city of Detroit for the past 180 years. For the last 100 years, DWSD was also a regional provider of water and wastewater services to four million people, or 35 percent of Michigan’s population. DWSD was one of the largest water utilities in the world with a service area that spanned more than 1,000 square miles, covering seven Michigan counties. It operated five water plants, one very large wastewater plant, and more than 40 facilities across the service area, and on a busy day produced, delivered, and treated more than two billion gallons of water and sewage.

In September 2014, as the City of Detroit was emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, a memorandum of understanding was drafted between the City of Detroit, the Counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb, and the State of Michigan to form a new regional entity called the Great Lakes Water Authority or GLWA. Further, GLWA will leverage DWSD’s regional water delivery and wastewater collection assets through a 40-year operating lease while still leaving the City of Detroit as the system’s owner. In return, DWSD will receive a $50 million annual lease payment from GLWA, gain access to a new regional water affordability program, and have two seats on the new authority’s six-member board. DWSD now will be recast as Detroit’s local water utility responsible for maintaining the water and sewerage system contained within the city and for managing Detroit’s retail customer base.

"Innovation now also means choosing to move to cloud  service for as many enterprises and line of business system as possible"

The new DWSD as of January 2016 is a much smaller entity than its former self, but it now has a specific focus; improving the quality of life for Detroit citizens by delivering safe, affordable water, and best-in-class customer service. Everything DWSD now does is focused on the local delivery and collection of water and sewage inside the city of Detroit’s 139 square miles.

Why New is Better

It turns out the refocused DWSD is the perfect place for innovation to flourish. The new DWSD, because of the divestiture (or bifurcation as we call it), does not have the burden of the legacy assets of the old organization. This includes, in particular, IT assets such as data centers, servers, enterprise software, central storage, enterprise backup systems, and PBX phone systems. However, DWSD is subscribing to these services through short-term transition agreements with GLWA. This “freeing up” of legacy infrastructure presents DWSD with an opportunity to really do things differently.

Built to Innovate

The new DWSD executive team is comprised of three generations; Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials. This means the old ways of doing things are not universally known. The executive team’s expectation is everything should work and should look like it came from Apple. In other words innovation is expected. This allows for a more creative look at options not usually considered in the past.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has experience in both the public and private sectors. Bringing the perspective that innovation is to be embraced, Mayor Duggan led a cross-departmental initiative, with DWSD and the City of Detroit’s Fire Department, to create a safer Detroit by effectively managing the City’s 30,000 fire hydrants. The result was an award-winning solution that combined lean business processes; mobile technology for citizens, fire fighters and field staff; the City’s and DWSD’s Geographic Information Systems; an Enterprise Asset Management System; web services and some good old-fashioned change management. The City’s new fire hydrant management program provides the fire department with visibility to the operational state of the City’s fire hydrants, DWSD and citizens with a modern, integrated set of mobile services for managing fire hydrants, and the mayor’s office with a bird’s-eye view of exactly how many fire hydrants are working across the City.

Innovation now also means choosing to move to cloud service for as many enterprises and line of business systems as possible. This March, the City and DWSD went live with a cloud-based Tier-1 ERP system from Oracle and are planning to implement a new Human Resource and Payroll system before this time next year. Fuel and fleet management are next on the list for DWSD, and a new disaster recovery service for DWSD’s mapping software was recently provisioned on Amazon Web Services.

Moving from “web first” to “mobile first” is how DWSD is changing the way that it builds customer-facing web properties. With more Detroiters possessing smartphones than personal computers, moving the web development platform to “mobile first” makes doing business with DWSD easier and more relevant for our customers. Working with a Detroit TechTown (a business incubator) startup moves DWSD a little closer to the edge, but brings a fresh look to improving customer service by giving customers more control via relevant consumption information.

The world of IT infrastructure is changing rapidly and not immune to the tentacles of innovation. DWSD is positioning itself to leverage those new opportunities. Taking a calculated risk on adopting new “hyper-converged” technology platforms able to provide high-availability, disaster recovery, and an effective DevOps infrastructure from one hardware platform is something that is high on the list of next projects.

Moving Forward Faster, Slower

With any change there come associated risks. When change is implemented in organizations, which live quarter-to-quarter and is inventing new products as a matter of survival, there is a native cultural acceptance of “this being the way we are.” In the public sector, and especially at public sector utilities, making significant changes to business processes, underlying technologies and job responsibilities is not so easily accepted nor encouraged. Public utilities are far more likely to resemble the proverbial frog in boiling water than a technology pioneer.

In order to move DWSD forward faster, we will have to be aware of the unintended consequences to our desires to adopt the latest and greatest products and services. The plans for change need to involve all stakeholders so they have a chance to contribute to the path forward and understand how they still fit in an organization that may have eliminated a significant amount of their work. Building a culture that is well versed in managing change will be crucial to DWSD’s short and long-term success.

As the DWSD moves into its 181st year, its focus remains squarely on improving customer service and delivering safe, affordable water to the citizens of Detroit. DWSD will be doing that by seeking to embrace new ways of working, sourcing technologies that challenge the status quo and by mastering change management. From adopting new technologies to finding new ways to leverage existing technology investments, DWSD will be the innovation leader within the City of Detroit.

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