Kansas Constructs Info Architecture

Kansas created the position of chief information

by / November 30, 1996
As technology has advanced, so too has its organizational standing.
When computers were basically fancy calculators suited to overnight administrative batch work, they served as secretaries or administrative assistants. As their computational and networking skills developed, they moved into research positions and finally onto the mainline of commerce.

Today, computers are assisting or taking over nearly every area of business and personal life. They carry out and record financial transactions, they route telephone communication; they're used to schedule, calculate, estimate, predict, design, copy, identify, locate, buy, sell, diagnose. They've established a new type of global community and new ways of conducting business. "Smart" objects -- including entire "smart" houses -- are beginning to move from the laboratory into the real world.

As technology's star has risen, so too has the role of the high technologist. High technology is no longer peripheral or trivial; it is central and strategic. In industry, this is reflected in the rising importance of the CIO; in the public sector, it is reflected in initiatives to establish strategy-level positions, such as Kansas' chief information architect (CIA).

"Several years ago, the state set up a group of individuals from private industry and state government to see if there were things they could recommend to improve the efficiency of operations and the quality of services to citizens," explained Frederick Boesch, Kansas' first and current CIA. "Some of the recommendations coming out of that group were to establish the Kansas Information Resources Council (KIRC) and to establish the position of chief information architect."

Problems with the existing data processing management were an important motivation for establishing the council and CIA. At the time, the central IT organization was responsible for both operations and services and the combination wasn't working well. State agencies weren't collaborating and the state was losing money by missing potential economies of scale.

The advisory group's recommendations aimed at solving some of these problems by pulling control and management oversight functions out of the existing information technology organization and developing an organizational structure that encouraged interdepartmental collaboration. These goals are reflected in the structure of the council, which includes the secretaries of the major state agencies, the commissioner of the Board of Education, the executive director of the Board of Regents, the state judicial administrator, a member of the Senate, a member of the House, a member of the Corporation Commission and three nonvoting representatives from private industry. The CIA is the council's nonvoting secretary and is also responsible for carrying out council mandates.

"I am responsible to the KIRC," said Boesch. "I'm a member of the council and also principal staff to the council. My position and my duties, like the council's, are set forth in statute."

An immediate target for the new organization was to secure statewide contracts to achieve better pricing. To help accomplish this, senior information managers were brought together to form the Information Technology Advisory Board, which is chaired by the CIA. The board established a committee to address statewide contracts, with the maintenance contract first on the list. This led to consensus on a five-year statewide maintenance contract which Boesch believes will save the state approximately $12 million.

"Previously, each data center established its own contractors," noted Boesch. "There is now a single contract that covers all vendors' equipment. From this success, the board moved on to establish other statewide contracts. The [board's] committees came together and established consensus where previously there had been disagreement. Therein lies the importance of a consensus-based process -- we have been able to step through a series of five or six contracts and are encouraging local governments and educational institutes to look at [and use] these contracts."

The new paradigm, however, has brought some new problems, such as how to track the larger contracts. While state agency participation is easily tracked, it has proven more problematic to accurately track non-state agencies. However, those kinds of problems seem minor in relation to the net financial gains.

Ironically, while the previous organization was hurting the state by lack of centralization on some things, it was also causing problems by enforcing too much centralization on other issues.

"Early on we looked at several of the areas where the control mechanisms of that central organization were most onerous on the agencies," commented Boesch. "One of them was in the approval of all purchases. As a result, we established an acquisition policy that provides guidance to the agencies and delegates the authority to approve purchases to agency heads with guidance as to how it is to take place."

Similarly, project management guidelines were approved to give agency heads the authority to approve projects on a phase-by-phase basis for all projects under $1 million. This approach helped to establish standards and common procedures while benefiting from the participation and individual initiative encouraged by decentralization.

The council and CIA's mandates to initiate a strategic plan for the state -- to coordinate technology issues, to establish appropriate standards and to review agency technology budgets -- provide a central point of coordination on technology issues which still can be adapted to the state's prevailing culture.

"In Kansas, there is a great deal of respect for local management and control and, as a result, although I think the importance of technology is stressed, it is allowed to develop more from a local level with state support rather than as a statewide program [pushed] down to the local level," noted Boesch.

For example, Boesch chaired a task force on education which looked at the availability of communication and Internet services. The task force developed programs to establish these services in the school and library districts. This resulted in a state-level contract for communication and Internet services that is targeted to K-12 programs, higher education facilities, libraries and health care providers. The state contract provides the structure, but does not dictate its use.

"We don't require folks at the local level to use whatever comes out of it," said Boesch. "It will be put in place for those folks to use. Communication and Internet services are very much a community-type issue. Some schools want it not only for the use of their students, but would like to have parents be able to communicate electronically.

"Obviously, local governments are also involved as are health care providers in terms of telemedicine programs and educational programs. This problem involves different elements in the community which are many times best addressed through a community solution. We don't want to disturb those areas where people are able to organize in a fashion that is advantageous to them. To the extent we can ensure there are services available to them, we mitigate the issues of the rural areas obtaining services at a reasonable price. We are then helping them to do what they are trying to do."

A similar collaborative approach has been used for GIS programs. The council formed a standing committee for GIS which has federal, state and local jurisdiction. The committee adopted the federal meta-data standard to serve as a common basis for information collected at any level of government.

"Having the council and the opportunity to coordinate the different areas of government will enable us to do things that would be more difficult to do, more time consuming to do," said Boesch. "Some of these things are not a matter of specific policies or approvals, but simply the ability to collaborate.

"The interesting thing about this is that technology is probably not our primary consideration," noted Boesch. "I see in the near term continued rapid expansion of Internet types of technology, both for use in providing information and services to the public and more importantly, its use within state government. But in the larger picture we are concerned with our ability to communicate and coordinate horizontally across agencies and vertically through an agency, down through lower levels of government and upward to federal. Those are really the reasons why technology is meaningful."

By taking the long view, the strategic view, Kansas, through the work of its Kansas Information Resources Council and CIA, is working to design and construct an information system that is standards-based, yet adapted to its users' local needs.

Although the actual reason for choosing the title "Chief Information Architect" over "Chief Information Officer" has been somewhat lost since the original legislative debates, Boesch said that the generally accepted explanation for the choice was a desire to make it clear that the CIA was not responsible for running the IT operations of individual agencies. For whatever reason, the title works; it makes it clear that the CIA is about strategy, about long-term goals and about constructing an information infrastructure that works for Kansas and its citizens.


David Aden
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.