At Issue: IT Governance Done Right

King County, Wash., and San Diego County, Calif., are two examples of governance models that work.

by / June 4, 2012
Some members of the King County Strategic Advisory Council following their meeting April 30.

If you are an elected or appointed local government official, most likely you do not have skills in enterprise architecture, cloud-based computing, cybersecurity and other information technology specialties. Yet you most likely will be required to participate in decisions about such systems that will affect the operations of your office, will require the expenditure of scarce funds, and could come back to haunt you if anything goes wrong. You will need – to some extent – to rely on the expertise of others.

In addition, many local government officials are independently elected and run separate operations. “This is especially an issue for county governments,” said outgoing Seattle CTO Bill Schrier, “which have multiple separately elected officials. Even counties with a population of only 10,000 or so will often have a county administrator – appointed by an elected board of supervisors or commissioners -- but then also have an elected sheriff, assessor and clerk.” So the question is how to bring those individuals and groups together on enterprise projects.

Finally, if you are a county or city IT shop, you may worry about having projects delayed or stopped as they work their way through multiple layers of decision-makers. How can a county or city get separate departments to work together cooperatively on IT projects that will affect them all? And how can the jurisdiction bring non-tech officials on board as partners? The subject designed to do this and more is typically called "IT governance."

King County, Wash.

King County, Wash., since 2001, has had a four-part governance structure. The Strategic Advisory Council (SAC) meets twice a year and its members include the county executive and members of the County Council, two presiding judges, the CIO, assessor, sheriff, prosecuting attorney, elections director, up to eight external advisors from the private sector, and up to two external advisors from the public sector.

The Project Review Board does advisory review and oversight of approximately 80 IT projects per year, and is comprised of the CIO, the performance strategy and budget director, director of the Department of Executive Services (providing internal services to the county) and the assistant deputy county executive. “That makeup is very strategic,” said the county's IT Governance Manager Zlata Kauzlaric. “You have the budget director who thinks money, Executive Services because each project that they review will change something in the county, and then you have this countywide or regional view that the deputy executive brings.”

In addition, the Business Management Council is comprised of departmental business leaders, and the Technology Management Board is comprised of departmental IT leaders. Both those bodies meet monthly. “They are all IT governance,” said Kauzlaric, ”and they bring their specific expertise to the table.”

At first glance, so many officials making decisions about IT projects might be expected to create a bureaucratic bottleneck. But Kauzlaric said just the opposite is the case. The County Council put the governance structure into the county code, she explained, “because when things go to the Council for decisions, it helps them – especially in major investments such as our implementation of a financial system."

Photo: Zlata Kauzlaric, King County IT governance manager

Before the County Council looks at a project proposal the SAC or the Business Management Council reviews it and gives findings and recommendations. "So when they see that it makes their decision easier,” Kauzlaric said.

Kauzlaric said King County's IT governance structure has attracted interest from other jurisdictions, and she refers them to a long list of online resources that range from humorous videos -- featuring county CIO Bill Kehoe and IT governance members  that explain subjects such as cloud computing and enterprise architecture -- to a flow chart of the IT governance review process.

Kauzlaric, a cheerful woman who laughs easily, said that it's important that council members not be subjected to long, boring explanations of technology, and yet they should have some assurance that the homework has been done and the project has been scrutinized from all angles, the costs and benefits weighed, and that there is consensus on how to proceed. “It provides us with a vehicle,” she said, “to move our IT vision forward.”

View from Outside

“I think it was a brilliant idea to have industry partners on the advisory board,” said Kauzlaric. She said that executives and separately elected leaders like to hear from experts outside the county when assessing the best course of action.

In 2009 San Diego County – which has for years outsourced its IT – created the Innovation Council to bring top-level IT companies into meetings with the county’s front-line employees. “I think those lessons learned,” said CIO Harold Tuck, “has allowed us to move from a utility – just managing the contract – to a transformation state, that we currently have with Hewlett-Packard.”

Microsoft’s Stuart McKee is a member of San Diego County Calif.’s Innovation Council as well as King County, Wash.’s Strategic Advisory Council, and thus has a unique perspective on such bodies.

“I’ve been involved in the innovation council in San Diego County for some years now,” said McKee, who heads the company's U.S. public-sector business. “It is indicative of the alignment in leadership that San Diego County has. It is unique in that regard – it is a consistent set of values and an agenda around technology.

"While the rest of the country has gone through tough times, and has de-invested in technology and tried to cut costs as the focus, San Diego County’s focus was on innovating and using technology creatively to solve problems. It was just a different perspective. And guess what? They reduced costs and got more value, as opposed to ‘let’s just cut budgets.’”

McKee also applauded King County, Wash.’s IT governance. “They have a Strategic Advisory Council,” he said. What’s unique about it is it involves all the elected officials. Where Harold’s thing [in San Diego] is about the IT community, and having IT partners come in to share ideas, the King County Advisory Council has some oversight authority, and brings the elected officials into the room. I’ve been involved there for quite a while and it’s been an interesting experience. You get the county executive, the sheriff, the assessor, the [prosecuting] attorney, the judges and the countywide electeds showing up for the meetings and the conversations.”

”The interaction between the county executives, elected officials and department directors was very impressive, said Cisco’s Greg Semler, another private-sector member of King County’s Strategic Advisory Council. “I do not see that kind of collaborative engagement very often.”

At Issue: What’s the best way to engage all parties in IT governance?

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.