February 8, 2005 By Merrill Douglas
A large part of the council's mission is to get CIOs throughout the state to work together as members of one large enterprise, building consensus rather than imposing policies and standards from a central IT authority.
Traditionally many forces conspired to foster IT anarchy within the state, spurring problems for both state agencies and local governments. For example, IT professionals cannot easily move from one agency to another, because each agency has a different technology setup. Without statewide architecture standards, different skills are needed for the same job titles among the various agencies, which results in inefficiency and added training costs, Dillon said.
Local governments struggle to satisfy technology requirements imposed by different state agencies, which act independently. "We realize that with stovepiped funding streams the way they are, budgetary pressures, appropriation language, that we were setting up circumstances where state agencies, with the best of intentions, could be putting out different systems and system requirements that would be a burden for local government," Dillon said.
A county department of social services, for example, must use applications developed by several different state agencies. These might run on separate computing platforms, and each one might even require a different communications infrastructure. "We've had individual county employees with two, three, four PCs on a desk, because every program required a different PC," said Norman Jacknis, CIO of Westchester County and co-chair of the council's technology committee.
"To a certain extent, Jim Dillon was surprised at how strong the support was from county CIOs for his efforts at establishing an enterprise approach for the state," said Jacknis. "And I said, 'You have to realize, we're the ones at the bottom of all these silos. We see all this insanity.'"
Since the council started meeting in late 2002, it has tackled several major projects. One has been helping the Office of the CIO develop a strategic plan for IT in New York. "The process has been remarkable because it's been inclusive of CIOs from state agencies [and] CIOs from the various counties," said Ron Bergmann, deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications' (DoITT) Office of the CIO. "They truly listened to our viewpoints on the strategic planning committee and accepted virtually all of our input." Each person involved approached the plan from an enterprise perspective, rather than simply watching out for his or her own organization's needs, said Bergmann, who also co-chairs the council's strategic planning committee.
The technology committee developed the first draft of a state enterprise technology architecture, which the council published early in 2004. In its next round, it will work toward some specific standards, said the Office of Mental Health's Felton, who co-chairs the technology committee along with Jacknis.
As New York state agencies start replacing legacy applications, such as the welfare management and tax systems, a statewide architecture and standards will help eliminate the stovepipes that have caused so many problems in the past, Dillon said. Local governments will run different state applications, with a similar look and feel, on the same platforms.
The architecture also promotes more efficient work force management, said Mike Nevins, CIO of the New York State Department of Labor and co-chair of the council's leadership committee. (Nevins recently resigned from these positions to work in the private sector.) "To the extent that, particularly the major agencies with large IT staffs begin to align with an enterprise architecture, it will make our lives a little easier in terms of personnel training and the transfer of personnel that's allowed via the civil service system," he said.
Nevins' committee took the lead in a third council project: developing a peer review process. The New York State Forum for Information Resource Management (NYSFIRM), an organization of public-sector IT professionals and industry representatives, worked with several state agency CIOs on a checklist to guide large technology initiatives, Dillon said. Under the peer review process, volunteer CIOs examine agencies' projects and make sure they follow the checklist, he said.
"We've often talked about having a peer review process," said Gregory Benson Jr., executive director at NYSFIRM, part of the State University of New York's Rockefeller Institute of Government. It wasn't until the state formed the CIO Council, however, that one actually took shape, he said.
What We Need, I Need
One large challenge all state IT councils face is how to balance state enterprise needs with those of individual agencies, said NASCIO's Robinson. Members of New York's CIO Council, however, said the enterprise approach has brought internal benefits to their organizations.
The state Office of Mental Health created its own enterprise architecture committee, a new set of standards, a new project office and a set of IT governance mechanisms modeled on the structures established by the CIO Council, Felton said. Following enterprise principles helped make the agency more efficient, he said. "It's helped make our decisions less idiosyncratic."
The state Department of Labor used the state's enterprise architecture as its guide when it launched a project to rewrite the unemployment insurance system. "It gave us a clear direction that was consistent with where the state was going as an enterprise," Nevins said. In the long run, the architecture will save the department money and make it easier to exchange data with other state information systems, he said.
DOITT's Bergmann pointed to collaboration between New York City and the state to negotiate a software license agreement with Microsoft. "By leveraging and combining the city's and the state's volume of licenses, we've achieved what I'm told is among the best prices of any local jurisdiction," he said, adding that pricing is available to all of New York's state and local government entities.
Local governments also benefit from the communications channels the council has established. In the past, communication with the state could be confusing, said Kim McKinney, IT director for Broome County and co-chair of the council's intergovernmental communications committee. "You didn't always know who was the right person to talk to when you had a problem." Communications are much better now, said McKinney, who is also president of the New York State Local Government Information Technology Directors Association (NYSLGITDA).
Today, when a member of NYSLGITDA gets wind of a state IT initiative that developed without local government input, the organization spreads the word through its listserv, McKinney said. "We take that back to our committee, saying, 'Here's a project that's impacting the locals. They didn't go through the right channels. They didn't send information to the IT directors. Who should we reach out to?'" Committee members either work to correct the matter on their own, or they put local CIOs in touch with the right person at the state level, she said.
The new tendency to reach out runs both ways, as state agency officials make contact with local counterparts through the intergovernmental communications committee, McKinney said. "A lot of them are sending me memos saying, 'Can you review this before I send it out to everybody? Have we hit all the issues? Are we addressing your concerns?'" Today these communications depend on informal relationships, but the committee expects to put an official process in place. "We need to make it less dependent on the people and more dependent on the mechanism," she said.
One thing the council probably will not do is expand its local CIO representation. "We've found that the number we've got is a pretty manageable one," said Dillon. "But we've really worked hard to ensure that the intergovernmental communications does not mean just communicating with the counties that are on the committee."
It All Takes Time
If the council faces significant challenges, some of them lie in the sheer effort required to accomplish its goals. "We've developed this process that depends on a tremendous amount of participation on everyone's part," said the Labor Department's Nevins. For an agency CIO, however, just running his or her own operation is already more than a full time job, he said. "Finding sufficient time to participate actively is probably the major challenge that everybody faces."
"The frustrating thing is that it all takes time," said McKinney. "Of course, we'd like to see things fixed immediately, but we also know that's not practical -- that it takes time to build momentum and keep it moving." After some local government CIOs started asking why the council wasn't making better progress on consolidating telecommunications lines for state applications, for example, McKinney said she decided it was her job to ensure the locals knew the progress being made, even if the job wasn't complete.
According to NYSFIRM's Benson, the council's biggest challenge is getting top executives at state agencies to understand how critical information management systems are to their core business. Unless public decision-makers appreciate the crucial role IT plays, they will not give sufficient attention to the needs of their IT offices, he said.
Federal regulations may also complicate the council's attempts to foster an enterprise environment in the state. In many cases, said technology committee co-chair Jacknis, state agencies that want to collaborate on IT projects are not allowed to pool IT funds they receive from the federal government.
Among the new goals the council set for itself is to establish better lines of communication with the state's IT vendors. "It's very important that vendors understand what we're expecting out of them by virtue of the enterprise architecture and strategic plans," Dillon said. Vendors may no longer claim ignorance when they violate principles the council has established or don't meet the requirements of the state's new enterprise environment, he said. "We expect them to stay informed as to what the council is doing."
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