When John Kost was appointed Michigan's first chief information officer in 1992, information technology management was scattered across the state government. "We had 15 data centers, and basically every agency did its own thing," said Kost in a recent interview. "The data center managers dictated policy for their respective departments because the departments didn't understand the technologies."

Once Kost became the CIO, this situation began to change. But that position fell to him almost by accident.

As a member of Gov. John Engler's senior staff, Kost wrote a management plan to deal with the decentralized information technology management. In the report, Kost said the state needed a strong CIO to set standards, reform purchasing and handle other information technology issues. The governor agreed with the recommendations so much that he told Kost to implement them. "I didn't expect that," he said. "I didn't have any technology background."

Kost, who has a Master's of Public Administration from the University of Michigan, said he learned about technology management by attending Harvard University seminars on technology and other educational programs.

"I'm not capable of doing hard programming, but I understand the high-level mechanics of how these things fit together and what they accomplish," he said. "And that's not too terribly difficult."

Kost said his key asset was an intimate knowledge of Michigan's government. "I had been working there long enough that I knew what agencies were there, who was doing what, and who was supposed to do what," he said. "I understood the business of government really well."

For a CIO, this knowledge provides an advantage over a manager with mainly technical knowledge. "For someone to come up through the technical ranks and have to learn that stuff is far more difficult than coming from the business side and having to learn the technical," he said. "You need people who understand how government works, then have them understand the technology."

The Michigan CIO answers to the governor, which Kost said was an important organizational element to his success. "The message [to departments] is a little different depending on where you are in the pecking order," he said. "If the CIO is close to the governor and close to the policy makers, [he'll] have a lot more influence, as well as being effective in explaining [to policy makers and the governor] why these technology issues are important."

Kost said the accomplishment that he is most proud of is purchasing reform, both across state government and specifically with information technology. When he took the CIO position, Kost said he told Engler that a real issue was not necessarily determining what technologies would solve their problems, but resolving issues at the front end of the purchasing process. "I told him that if you can't buy the right technology, then you don't have a prayer of accomplishing anything. So he called my bluff and gave me charge of reforming our purchasing system."

Kost characterized his reform program as eliminating regimentation and inserting common sense into what was a process-oriented task. One change was to use sole-source contracting more frequently because it usually accelerates procurement, partly because the long, often futile, protest period is generally sidestepped. Also, best-value, rather than low-price, procurement was emphasized. With low-bid procurement, Kost said, "you get the impression of getting the best price. But that's an illusion because the real issue is the cost," not the price.

Michigan's procurement reform was intended to give buyers the ability to make decisions on how and what they would buy. Managers can choose, within some limits, from a variety of methods including low-bid, best-value and sole-source contracts.

"By going to a very flexible procurement system, you try to ask 'how do I procure what I need at the best