If you were watching television or listening to the radio in St. Louis, Kansas City or anywhere in Missouri on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 1997, you heard a newscaster report the following: "Mike Benzen, chief information officer for the state of Missouri, announced today the state government will spend over $55 million to fix its various software programs and get them ready for the year 2000. While Benzen said he was embarrassed that the state was facing this problem, he assured taxpayers that every state government and most large corporations were facing similar problems. Benzen also asserted that 'while $55 million is a lot of money, it is less than most states will pay to address this issue.'"
I had just landed at St. Louis' Lambert Field, climbed into my rental car and was preparing for the drive to Springfield, Ill., when I heard the Benzen news report on KMOX, the St. Louis CBS network affiliate. About an hour later I heard it on an Illinois station, and later that night it was on Springfield TV. At first I worried for Mike, a man I consider a friend, because sometimes the messenger of bad news is shot. Then it dawned on me that the tactic of bringing this issue to the forefront, facing the problem head-on and moving immediately to its resolution, just might be the perfect strategy
for dealing with any difficult and negative public-sector information technology issue.
In a follow-up interview, Benzen explained that Missouri's approach to resolving the year 2000 date field issue required a strategy that promised "no surprises." Benzen said that there is "no way for agencies to go to the Legislature independently" to get funding to address year 2000. He said that "each agency would have to explain the issue and its impact on them individually" and the Legislature would likely expect them to divert dollars that would otherwise
be dedicated to developing systems to support their missions.
Instead, Benzen decided that this was one of the strategic IT issues that should be addressed by his office of the CIO. He hired Andersen Consulting to "do an assessment, a real inventory by program, by application and by number of hours of effort to do repairs." He determined that Missouri employees would make one-third of the repairs themselves and procure $55 million worth of consulting services to make the rest of the fixes.
Benzen decided to take this funding request "out of the operating budget environment and define it instead as a capital improvement." He got a positive reception from the legislative committee he presented it to. Benzen said when he testified before the committee they asked him "if he could guarantee that he would not be back next year, or the year after, to ask for more year 2000 money." He told them "no, this is our best estimate." One of the legislators on the committee actually came to his rescue saying "there is no way that he can be exact" on this kind of estimate. The legislator, a businessman as well, went on to say that until the work began they could not determine exactly how many code changes would be required. It sure makes the CIO's job easier when he has such IT-savvy legislators to deal with.
Since Benzen received funding for the effort, Andersen Consulting was awarded the repair work. The biggest political problem that Benzen has faced in the year 2000 issue was addressing union concerns about the amount of work Andersen is sending offshore, using Asian experts to tackle the problem more cost-effectively. Doing all of the work in Missouri would add between $25 million to $30 million to the total cost, according to Benzen. The Legislature is inclined to support his approach with Andersen because Benzen established credibility with them by having been so straightforward.
The moral of this story is that IT leadership, even in the public sector, takes an entrepreneurial approach that recognizes risks, considers return on investment issues and, most importantly, looks for opportunity to meet market needs. Benzen saw the need to address year 2000 fixes and determined that he could add value to his customers -- both taxpayers and agencies -- by consolidating the problem at a state level. Most importantly, he was willing to expose his plan to public scrutiny, legislative oversight and the public procurement process -- the true test of the governmental entrepreneur. Other listeners to that KMOX show may not have heard it the way I did, but to me the story was about an information technology crusader, one who is a hero in the world of strategic computing.
Larry Singer -- an expert on strategic computing with 12 years experience in the information technology industry serving all levels of government -- is currently a research fellow with the Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. E-mail: