CIO Profile: Pam Ahrens

Pam Ahrens, director, Idaho Department of Administration

by / June 3, 2002
One of Pam Ahrens' charges as director of Idaho's Department of Administration is to chair the Information Technology Resource Management Council (ITRMC), the state's statutorily created governing body for information technology. In her position, she helps carry out Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's IT plans for Idaho, and, with representatives from throughout the state, recommends short- and long-term policies and strategies.

How does ITRMC approach its statewide governance structure?

You start out with a vision of policies and standards [and] you build the tools and resources and infrastructure. Then you focus on educating the people that have to participate in the development of applications -- educating the state legislators and training [them] about what emerging technologies are available -- what makes sense for delivery of services to Idaho citizens. We do that through a boot camp. Each year we have an information technology boot camp for public policy-makers so that we can talk about the emerging challenges in information technology. We also work hard to recruit and retain professionals and the talent that we need to implement many of the standards. We're looking in the future for more interaction with local governments and the federal government so that information that Idaho citizens receive electronically [is] seamless. Where this goes in our governance structure may need to change as the information technology world changes.

How do the state agencies get along with ITRMC?

Before the standard or policy [is] voted on by ITRMC, we've gone to all the major agencies and discussed [it] with them and they have helped develop that policy and standard. If their agency doesn't meet the particular standard or guideline at this point, they're directed to when they have the funds. If they make an investment in the future, then the future investments will need to comply with the standards, and that's all you can expect because some agencies have more funding available than others.

What is the significance of a centralized resource like ITRMC?

Government is very risk-adverse. They're very fearful of failure because any failures that we may have in government, you'll read about it in the front page of your local newspaper. So you want to coach people to succeed -- meaning take care of as many processes and tasks as you can, so when an agency begins looking at implementation of applications, they don't have to go out and begin at square one and bid this and bid that. When you have a centralized resource like we have, that's the value that we add. We do a lot of the work for the smaller agencies.

What would you tell a state considering a centralized governance resource?

We pooled the talent for our research and development group. By agreeing on a base standard, individual decisions by agencies can be made knowing that in information technology, the boundaries that we arbitrarily put up are taken away -- that centralizing some resources allows you to do more with less. It's certainly a matter of utilizing your human resources and your financial resources to the maximum. Before asking for new funds, I'd look first at the money we currently have and how we're spending that. You have to maintain accountability for success of IT programs with individual agencies. It's a dynamic discipline and it doesn't wait for anyone but it's a matter of putting an organizational structure together that allows you to anticipate what the future needs are going to be and move very quickly.

You're really focused on this central coordination with local agency innovation and control. The frontline agencies know their business best, and information technology is nothing more than a business support tool and should be what drives the decisions.

The other thing is it has to be in the law. It has to be written in your code saying this is the way we plan to manage our information technology dollar.

What are your days like?

I try to spend as much of the day as I can not putting out fires but looking for ways to enhance what we do: kind of look a little bit to the future. If you have responsibility as a manager, you also have responsibility as a leader. It's a very diverse position; it's very challenging. One day is never the same as the day before. That's what makes it fun.