Nancy Robertson still recalls the panic she felt when her name appeared on a furlough list five years ago. A single parent with 15 years of state employment under her belt, Robertsons position as a mainframe computer operator was being eliminated as part of an ambitious plan to outsource Pennsylvanias data center operations.

"It hit me really hard," she said. "The old adage that when you have a state job, youre guaranteed work forever -- all of a sudden that was gone."

Pennsylvanias outsourcing plan offers an extreme example of the upheaval facing public agencies as they struggle to streamline operations and position themselves to do business electronically. Completed earlier this year, the project replaced 17 state-run data centers with a single facility managed by a consortium of 10 private companies.

State officials now estimate the move will save more than $110 million over five years and deliver more reliable technology services throughout the state. But when the massive consolidation was first announced, nearly 200 IT workers faced the prospect of seeing their current positions disappear.

What happened next, however, transformed adversity into opportunity. Robertson and others in danger of losing their jobs at Pennsylvanias Commonwealth Technology Center (CTC) were offered state-sponsored retraining. Courses could be completed during work hours, and the agencys director vowed to find positions for anyone who took advantage of them.

Robertson dove into a series of online classes and landed a new job as a distributed systems specialist. Now she installs personal computers, loads software and tends to the computer network in the state Department of Finance building. Along the way, she also became an enthusiastic supporter of Pennsylvanias outsourcing project.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was outsourcing the data center. I had to get the lead out and choose another career path," Robertson said. "As a computer operator, I was dead-ended. Between the training and my new job, the things I have learned are astronomical."

Changing Minds

Comments like Robertsons are the hallmark of successful change management programs, which are designed to foster understanding and acceptance of new ways of doing business within organizations.

"For people at all levels, change is a threatening event. Change management is about reducing the amount of that threat," said Ron Salluzzo, senior vice president in charge of KPMG Consultings state and local government practice. "You need to get people committed to thinking their lives are going to somehow be better, their jobs are going to be more rewarding and theyre going to be contributing more to the organization."

Issues addressed by change management may be closer to psychology than technology, but theyre critical to the success of major IT projects -- particularly as public agencies retool to meet the demands of electronic government. In fact, the people issues addressed by change management may pose a larger concern for project managers than computer hardware and software.

"Whats happened in the last five or six years is that the technology has gotten so good and so advanced that its generally not the issue," Salluzzo said. "The success of a project is directly related to your ability to do change management well."

Failure to address these issues can slow IT projects to a crawl as employees resist new processes or dont understand them. And the result can be disastrous.

"Anytime you slow something down, it costs money -- thats obvious," he said. "Less obvious is that the longer a project takes, the less likely it will get finished. This is particularly important in the government setting where you have a certain amount of turnover based on the political process. If you lose your sponsor, that will often stop a project entirely."

Right Moves

Pennsylvanias CTC took important steps toward

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.