Earlier this year, GCOM’s CEO Kamal Bherwani sat down with Tom Allon from City & State Magazine for a discussion about his experience in the technology industry and GCOM’s approach to delivering outcomes for state and local government.
Tom Allon: What are your goals over the next five to 10 years for GCOM?
Kamal Bherwani: I want GCOM to be known as the company that helps government create healthier and more prosperous communities. And for me, it's all about delivering outcomes. A lot of technology providers will say "We completed a project on time on budget." And they view that as a success. But my view of success is whether or not the government got the outcome it wanted for their residents when they created the program. And can we help them get there? That’s what we challenge all GCOMers to do. We’ve created a strategy called NextGen Government because we know that the pandemic and the investments coming in from the American Rescue Plan will be used to deliver better outcomes. And we want to be a partner with government in making sure those outcomes happen.
Tom Allon: Tell us how you got involved in technology in the first place.
Kamal Bherwani: It actually started way back in elementary school, when a friend of mine convinced me to loan him some money. A few months later, he told me he couldn’t pay me back, but he offered to give me a computer that his dad had given him. I didn’t have much of a choice, but it kicked off my passion for technology. I taught myself everything I could. I started learning programming in the sixth grade, and by high school I was working in the evening as a programmer. I loved it from day one. I would have done it for free.
My first real job was as a programmer in New York City government. At the time, the agency was called the Department of General Services. From there I went to HPD, Housing Preservation Development, and left in 1994 to work for a private equity investment banking organization. I came back as the first CIO for DDC, Department of Design and Construction, then from there returned to HPD as CIO. I left government for a while and did some tech investing, but then came back as the CIO for Health and Human Services. About half of my career has been in city government.
Tom Allon: Why did you decide to become the CEO of GCOM?
Kamal Bherwani: GCOM is all about delivering outcomes for state and local government. And I have a passion for that because I saw what you could do when you were in city government. The kind of projects you could take on and the ways you can change people's lives were pretty powerful.
State and local governments are better positioned to create lasting change because improving wellbeing for residents is a longitudinal problem. It's about diverting and shaping on a person-by-person basis to drive large-scale-change. Small deviations that occur when someone is young can have huge impacts later.
Consider me being given that computer instead of being repaid that loan – that was a meaningless event for me at the time, but it shaped my entire life.
The work done at GCOM focuses on using technology to improve outcomes. Each city has their own view of what they want those outcomes to be, because service delivery happens at a local level. You don't call the federal government to pick up your garbage or when there's a problem with your child. You deal with the issue locally. I joined GCOM because I wanted to be involved in that type of change.
Tom Allon: In which areas of government is technology-enabled change more ripe to occur?
Kamal Bherwani: I think everyone can agree economic prosperity is directly tied to improving outcomes through technology, because incomes lead to outcomes. Then outcomes lead to incomes. It goes both ways. We can leverage technology to define outcomes and then agree on how to fund the outcomes that are the most important.
Regardless of the area, whether it’s public safety or education or healthcare, we have to begin by using technology to measure the outcomes that are most important. That means going beyond transactional metrics. This is a long-time challenge within government. You have lots of people trying to do their best, focusing on a specific transaction, like getting residents enrolled in a program, but those transactions can’t be connected to the ultimate outcomes. Instead of tracking, if and when, a resident was approved for a certain benefit or qualifies for a specific program, we must be measuring the impact of those programs.
Tom Allon: Obviously, the pandemic has changed how government delivers services. Can you talk a little bit about that? How do you think this is going to impact what you do and what government does?
Kamal Bherwani: I think when we look back on it, we'll see that the pandemic has been an accelerator of both good things and bad things. For example, it exposed inequity and injustice in a number of ways. On the other hand, it’s accelerated the adoption of digital technology – technologies that allow working from home and hybrid work environments, something governments have never really allowed.
It’s also accelerated the adoption of data analytics to enable better policies. The more data you have, the more transparency you can offer. Transparency leads to accountability, and accountability leads to change.
There’s no doubt we’re seeing the acceleration of technology in the health and human services space. Take telehealth, for example. Telehealth did not really exist on a pervasive until the pandemic happened. Necessity became the mother of invention. Telehealth is one of the ways that government is making life for residents easier, more frictionless.
Tom Allon: If you could look into your crystal ball, what can we expect over the next five years in terms of technology improving government?
Kamal Bherwani: I think there will be a competition for taxpayers, and tech will play a big part in that. Its already started and it has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. People realize they can work from home, and that’s given them options about where they want to live. How can state and local governments now market to taxpayers and bring people in? The mayor of Miami is actively marketing residents in California. That's never really happened before.
We’ll also see governments trying to digitize and modernize as much as possible. New York City has done this in very strong ways. For example, we partnered with New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to create a digital birth and death certificate system. All birth and death certificates are electronically certified by a doctor on a mobile phone, in a hospital, a private hospital, in a private setting, 15,000 doctors. Conversely, when someone passes away, the permission to bury or cremate is issued electronically.
Overall, I think we’ll see more of an investment in creating a frictionless experience for residents when they interact with government. More cities and states will focus on creating one-stop-shops for residents to conduct all of their business with government, which is going to drive down operational costs.