New York's IRM Task Force

The Task Force on Information Resource Management is helping New York state and local agencies coordinate and plan.

by / March 31, 1997
It's been just over a year since New York Gov. George Pataki made an unprecedented move in tackling the state's decentralized information technology community and appointed a task force on Information Resource Management, chaired by Director of State Operations James Natoli. Comprised of the state's most influential information resource directors, the task force has been charged with establishing a statewide agenda for New York's technology and was given three goals:

To save money.
To improve communication within and among state agencies and levels of government.
To make doing business with and within the state easier.
New York, third in the nation on information technology spending, was operating without a chief information officer or a centralized information technology office. The question for this new administration was: How do you bring together these disparate folks, take advantage of their technological knowledge, expertise and experience, and make it work together for the first time? To begin answering that question, they chose Camaron Thomas as task force director.

Thomas, a 15-year veteran of New York state government, came to the task force from the Division of the Budget where she successfully coordinated a statewide effort for procurement reform. She is not a technologist, and said that the Governor's Office specifically was looking for someone who was not a technology person to direct the task force. "A chief information officer was not needed," she said. "What was needed was a coordinating entity working with the expertise that's out there, not some top dog issuing orders."

She now has over 70 workgroups, developing policies and practices to take on a full range of technology issues ranging from Internet to help desks. And New York's IT community seems pleased with the progress thus far. Leo Carroll, director of systems for the Division of Criminal Justice Services, thinks the task force "has done a good job as a catalyst to move issues and get groups of information systems people and agency managers working together to focus on the large issues that impact the state. They have done very little mandating, instead emphasizing best practices, preferred standards and guidelines in their approach with the agencies." Laura Iwan, director of Heathcomm at the Department of Health, agreed. As a workgroup leader for security issues, Iwan remarked that the task force has "fostered levels of communication between agencies never before achieved."

The task force staff is comprised of 18 people, handpicked by Thomas from all disciplines, including architecture, information technology, project management, financial management and legal counsel. Staff are all "on loan" from their respective agencies.

"If you think you have the answers," said Thomas, "New York will eat you alive. You have to listen to others." When asked what she was most proud of after her first year, Thomas said "getting as many people as possible to participate in the process of this change."

Because of New York's size and diversity, the task force strives to make the most of what the state already has. One way is designating what it calls "best practices" and making them available to all state and local agencies.

Over the years, nearly every large state agency in New York independently developed their own administrative systems in such areas as financial management, human resource management and vehicle maintenance. To tap into investments like these, the task force created a Standing Subcommittee on Best Practices. The subcommittee meets bimonthly and focuses on a particular administrative area. The committee reviews applications submitted by agencies against overall standards for functionality, cost, service, support and vision for the future. After judging the "entries" the subcommittee selects the "best practice" which is adopted by the state. Future agencies seeking to develop new applications in this area are directed to the state's best practices. This approach is intended to reduce fees for consultants in developing proprietary systems and has helped forge new working relationships among agencies.

In June 1996, the best practices process inspired the implementation of a "lead agency" policy. Selected state and local agencies are assigned lead agency status in key technology areas. A lead agency prototypes an emerging or key technology on behalf of the state. The policy is intended to avoid multiple agencies pursuing the same technology without the benefit of another's experience. The task force connects agencies embarking on a new technology, such as "smart cards," with the lead agency. If a pilot is occurring in the lead agency, other agencies may be asked to postpone acquisition until the pilot is completed, after which time a multi-agency RFP may be in order.

Agencies that currently have this status include the Department of Correctional Services for telemedicine, the Department of Motor Vehicles for credit card transactions, and New York City for kiosk technology.

In another attempt to
bring the knowledge of New York's workforce together, the task force conducts agency operational reviews. At an agency's request, the task force will review internal information resource management (IRM) operations for an entire IRM shop or a particular business unit that is looking at technology to improve its operations. For each review, the task force assembles a special team of highly qualified professionals from different agencies. All recommendations are confidential and the task force is available to assist the agency during implementation if necessary. The recommendations are not mandates. Already, over 15 agencies have requested reviews, and local governments are beginning to ask for help.

To ensure consistency and to share agency expertise, the task force reviews all purchases over $50,000 and conducts a "peer review" of all major purchases. For example, the departments of Health and Social Services independently embarked on electronic benefits transfer projects for welfare recipients. The task force brought these two agencies together, saving recipients from eventually ending up with two different smart cards. Collaboration in purchasing has also gone beyond New York's state and local agencies. Thomas worked with Texas in a joint agreement to negotiate a multistate software licensing agreement with Corel Corp., a model they wish to pursue with other states and products. The task force has requested all agencies include language in any contract they negotiate that allows other agencies to join in. They have also developed a Web site for purchasing agents offering pricing information for desktop computers, portables and printers. Pricing updates are entered directly by the vendors who have access only to their firm's information. Thomas estimates the task force saved $10 million from these coordinated efforts in 1996.

Last August, the task force issued a network policy introducing the "NYT" -- pronounced "net" -- a statewide, closed and secure intranet that will carry data and ultimately voice and video. The NYT, administered by a governance council, will evolve incrementally, operate on voluntary participation and target state and local government. The policy includes the statewide adoption of the TCP/IP protocol and maps an implementation timeline through the year 2000.

The task force is also obtaining advice from the private sector. Thomas convened a Business Community Subcommittee -- comprised of a variety of sectors such as agriculture and banking, but excluding technology companies -- which has been making recommendations on how the task force can make New York more "business friendly," a key component of the Pataki agenda. The business subcommittee saw online transactions as the wave of the future and suggested assigning a single unique identifier to companies doing business with the state.

The task force has also been garnering support from top agency executives. It sponsored a series of executive training sessions on such topics as imaging, the Internet, the year 2000 and business
process engineering. Thomas feels that educating the state's top managers is critical. "They need to see technology as neither geeky nor boring. We need to spark their interests," said Thomas. The task force is guided by the principle that technology in itself isn't the answer, but is a tool to promote positive change and that program needs will drive technology deployment, not the reverse.

Task forces and committees -- with myriad players, grand plans and good intentions -- may often fail to yield concrete results. But New York's task force is producing. For example, an intergovernmental project in Schoharie County -- a small rural county in upstate New York -- involves two state agencies working together with a local government entity to share data and telecommunications, providing efficiencies and causing less headaches for the county.

The task force also pulled together the state's departments of Labor, Taxation and Finance, and Social Services to combat welfare fraud and gear up for welfare reform. According to George Mitchell, deputy commissioner at the Department of Taxation and Finance, "concrete results are happening because the task force has pulled together the right people, marshaling their talent and hammering out solutions. They've got the doers working together and keeping things moving."

Reflecting on her first year as task force director, Thomas is pleased with the approach and the results. However, she recognizes that there is still much to do, and said the task force will be concentrating on big issues that cross agency lines such as electronic procurement, online transactions, disaster preparedness and interstate cooperation. If the first year is any indication, New York is heading in the right direction.

Maureen Toncello is Eastern Regional Director for Government Technology Conference. E-mail: .


PROBLEM/SITUATION: New York state agencies were operating without an Information Technology Office to coordinate efforts among them.

SOLUTION: Appoint a task force to tackle the state's decentralized technology community.


VENDOR: Corel Corp.

CONTACT: Internet:

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