When he became New Mexico’s CIO and secretary of the Department of Information Technology in 2011, Darryl Ackley was surprised by how steep the learning curve was in terms of working with the state legislature.
“I considered myself reasonably familiar with the process, but boy was I not,” he recalled. “Anyone who hasn’t been in state government before is going to have a simplified view of what is involved.”
Ackley discovered that he faced a yearlong process of budget and reporting deadlines as well as testimony preparation. “And what I found is that you could get overcome and consumed by that process, especially when it was something you didn’t anticipate.”
To keep newly minted CIOs from getting steamrolled by the process, Public CIO asked four seasoned state IT executives to share lessons learned from their own experience building relationships with legislatures, especially when IT projects fail to meet expectations. Their advice makes up part of our CIO Survival Guide.
1. Learn the rules and regulations. The first thing any new CIO should do is study the enabling legislation and any existing rules, Ackley said. “Familiarize yourself with statutes and schedules,” he recommends. Figure out which committees you are going to be involved with and understand the interplay between the executive branch and the legislative finance office on budget issues, he said. Make sure you understand the process, statutes, deadlines and responsibilities for reporting to the legislature.
Carlos Ramos, CIO of California, said some legislators self-identify as particularly interested in understanding technology and it helps to engage with them. As an example, he pointed to Joan Buchanan, who until November was a state assemblywoman and chair of a Select Committee on Government Efficiency, Technology and Innovation. “She was cognizant of the potential of technology and wanted the state to do a better job of managing our technology initiatives,” he said.
When the state needs to modify contracts, Ramos said, it is important to keep budget committee chairs up to speed and maintain good relations. “One other critical aspect is to make sure we maintain information sharing with legislative staff,” he said. Especially in an era of term limits, committee chairs change, and members come and go. Staff members are one of the consistent factors there, Ramos said.
Herschel Cleveland, the acting director of the Arkansas Department of Information Systems (DIS), has seen the relationship-building from both sides. He served in the legislature for several years, including a stint as speaker of the House. “My third year in the legislature, I was vice chairman of the budget committee and the budget chairman got sick the first week of the session and did not come back until the last week, which meant that I was in essence the budget chair.” That experience has informed Cleveland’s role at DIS, because he understands the details of the budget process and has some long-term relationships with legislative research staff. “It helps to pick up the phone and people take your call,” he said. Most of the state representatives who were colleagues have been term-limited, but several have moved to the Senate. “We still have those relationships. We may not agree on everything, but at least we have a dialog.”
3. Speak in business terms, not tech jargon. Although technology can be complicated, it’s important to communicate in language legislators understand, Orgeron said. “Legislators are very smart. Most have business backgrounds. They understand the weights and pulleys of things. They understand the motivations. If you can speak to that, not just servers and megabytes, but speak to solving business problems, you will have more success.”
Khanna agrees. “Incoming CIOs need to be aware that it is important that we talk in terms of the viewpoint of the legislators. Some are representing the public in the most remote areas of their state. Their focus might be agriculture or small businesses, mining, or oil production. In talking to them, I focused on an area that was mission critical and made a compelling case.”
4. On troubled projects, be transparent and honest. As a new CIO develops an understanding of the state’s portfolio, he or she must be transparent and proactive about any projects that are in trouble. “Let them know you are there to take charge and have a plan in place,” Ramos said. “When we have troubled projects, we have commissioned independent assessments to diagnose what went wrong, and we are very transparent with those assessments. We say to legislators, ‘Here are our takeaways, and what we are doing to prevent it from happening in the future.’” For instance, a large multiyear ERP implementation in California has required budget and timeline adjustments, Ramos said. Keeping legislators informed about changes as they happen has kept them supportive of the project.
Cleveland’s approach was shaped during his tenure as a legislator as he watched a troubled financial system drag on through changes of leadership and lawsuits. “When you fail to communicate, you have lost credibility forever,” he said. “Being frank with where you are is the first and best rule any CIO can follow. And if you don’t know what you are talking about, you need to reach down into your organization and get the right information.”
Khanna said it was his duty to taxpayers, legislators and the governor to be out front in explaining why something wasn’t working as planned. He pulled the plug on one health and human services system because he determined it had become a runaway project. More than $10 million had already been spent. When the move was criticized by legislators, he told them it was better to lose $10 million than $150 million. “I told them we don’t want to throw good money after bad. I thought they should be lauding this move instead of being critical. As a state CIO, it was my oversight responsibility. I had to take responsibility for decisions and defend them, even if they were unpopular.”
5. Get some small wins early. All the CIOs we interviewed said a good strategy is to find low-hanging fruit and get some solid accomplishments to show the legislature in year one. “Get some small wins, and make sure you can accomplish them,” said Ackley. “It is easy to say we are going to fix everything in one fell swoop, but legislators want to get a sense of your ability to operate and execute. They want to know they can depend on you to deliver.”
Orgeron said you have to pick your battles. You can’t approach the legislature with a list of 37 things you want funding for. “Whittle the list down to a manageable level,” he said. “Maybe at first it is just consolidating email to the cloud. Keep it simple. Seek agreement on some things, so the trust and credibility quotient can go up. Then you can talk about more difficult and more challenging things, such as addressing change from an enterprise perspective.”
6. Don’t take criticism personally. While it’s critical to build relationships, CIOs also must be aware of political sensitivities, especially when the legislature is controlled by a different political party than the executive branch.
“At your first few hearings, you are the new kid. They’re going to be skeptical,” Darryl Ackley said. Often people have legitimate questions and other times they just have an agenda to state, and hearings can become adversarial, he said. “The important point is not to take it personally.”
In California, Ramos said, he hasn’t experienced much partisan bickering about IT. “There are members who are vocal and want us to be successful. They do get frustrated when things don’t go well, but that is pretty natural. But I don’t sense it is political grandstanding.”
7. Understand the network of influence. Mississippi’s Orgeron said legislators are good at tapping into a network of vendors, lobbyists, business partners and consultants. “The topics are so complicated that they are asking different folks in that chain versions of the same question and comparing the answers they get,” he said. “One survival tactic is to understand that that is how they are operating. You have to tap into that network yourself and be part of the conversation. If you are not, you will find yourself in a challenging spot.”
8. Learn from your predecessors. Ramos has known just about all of the previous California CIOs. “I have watched them pretty carefully in terms of their interaction with the legislature,” he said. In some cases, they have had it pretty rough and been called on the carpet for challenging hearings. “I watched those and learned from it,” he said.
One CIO in particular that Ramos remembers is J. Clark Kelso, who came in at a time when the CIO’s office had been shut down by the legislature because of some badly handled technology initiatives. At that point, there was no statutory authority for the office, and Kelso didn’t have a portfolio, Ramos said. “He pulled the IT community together and let the legislature know what was going on. I thought he did a really skillful job of communicating with the legislature that we needed as a community to be smart about how we manage projects from an enterprise perspective. Because of the great work he did, the legislature eventually authorized what is now the Department of Technology. He rebuilt credibility and helped them understand the importance of having a central authority to oversee the state IT portfolio.”