The CIO - Lightning Rod for IT Troubles?

Do chief information officers take the blame without being given the authority? Five current and former state CIOs discuss the sometimes embattled role of the CIO.

by / September 30, 1995
October '95 Level of Govt: State Function: Management Problem/Situation: The increased use of technology in state government has generated a host of technical, managerial and political problems. Solution: Government needs to examine new approaches to delivering services with technology and evaluate what role the CIO plays. Jurisdictions: California, Washington, Georgia, Massachusetts, Los Angeles Contact: XXX

By Tod Newcombe Contributing Editor As state governments increase their reliance on computers, the number and size of information technology (IT) projects grow and so do the problems. In state after state, IT projects are overshooting their schedules and budgets. A rising number of IT systems have failed or do not function as intended. State legislators have been quick to point fingers at CIOs and information executives, demanding to know how the highest-ranking state officials in charge of technology can allow waste and failure. But CIOs counter that they are being blamed for a problem that extends beyond their control. "States have to do more with less and they think that technology is going to pull a rabbit out of the hat for them," said George Lindamood, former director of Information Systems for the state of Washington. Lindamood and other former and current CIOs say that technology won't solve government's ills so long as politics, a creaky procurement system, an uncoordinated approach to funding and misguided federal policies stand in the way. More troubling is the desire by states to use technology in the very heart of government operations to drive the way they deliver services. Steve Kolodney, former director of California's Office of Information Technology who now has Lindamood's former position in Washington state, said government still has old assembly-line processes and 30 years' worth of data - much of it corrupt - in place. Adding new and more powerful technology accelerates and amplifies these basic inadequacies and problems. "It's like that classic scene from one of Lucille Ball's TV shows," he said, "when she's trying to put cakes into boxes at a factory. The cakes don't fit the box, but the assembly line keeps going faster and faster. Technology can only make the existing processes move faster. It can't fix them. Similarly, technology can only amplify the corruption in state data that has always been there, but just wasn't visible to us. Unfortunately, we can't clean up the mess until after we find it exists. We find that out by applying the technology."

BAD PROCUREMENT, MESSY POLITICS Lindamood's tenure with the state of Washington, which ended in June, lasted 28 months. According to Lindamood, that's one month longer than the average tenure for CIOs. When he arrived, three large IT projects were teetering on the brink of disaster. Lindamood, who worked in the private sector before heading the state's information services, quickly learned that - despite the high risks that come with building large IT projects - it was the only way to get things done in government. "One of the reasons you do large projects in government is that the system is not set up to allow for continuous improvements to small IT projects," he said. "It takes you roughly the same amount of effort to do a large IT procurement as it does to do a small procurement." Therefore, instead of carrying out a continuous series of incremental upgrades - which is the logical approach to computer system development - agencies wait 15 or 20 years before attempting a massive upgrade. That's a recipe for disaster, according to Lindamood. While the state's CIO, Lindamood tried to break the logjam in the procurement system and the lack of planning at the agency level by proposing that information technology services in the state be turned into a state-owned corporation. Freed from annual legislative oversight and other bureaucratic constraints, this would enable the state to carry out IT strategic planning on a more rapid basis - say every three or six months - which is typical in the private sector and more in keeping with the rapid pace of technological change. But the proposal never went anywhere, said Lindamood, primarily because the Legislature didn't want to see the governor's office get any credit for the move. Kolodney also derided legislative meddling in IT planning. He referred to those in politics - who are quick to blame CIOs for failures without understanding the problems - as "entrepreneurial legislators." "Technology is an ideal subject for them," Kolodney said. "IT issues make legislators look modern, it brings in money for their campaign coffers from lobbyists who are interested in the subject, and they understand that the press loves to cover failures."

UNCOORDINATED FUNDING CIOs also cite the vagaries of funding as another issue that has had a chilling effect on IT planning and their ability to lead. The lack of control over funding can be attributed to the shift toward distributed computing. "When data processing was centralized, the director's authority resided with the departments of finance and administration, where the dollars were controlled," said P.K. Agarwal, president of the National Association of Information Resource Executives (NASIRE) and head information technology for California's Department of General Services. "Now CIOs are reporting to commissions and governors, which isn't where the power is in a bureaucracy." John Thomas Flynn said that uncoordinated funding for IT projects was the first issue he ran into when he became CIO of Massachusetts in July 1994. "You could get your IT project funded in any number of different ways," he recalled. "We had people spending money out of operating budgets, revenue budgets and from a host of bonds that had nothing to do with technology." The federal government's approach to funding IT projects has been equally problematic. "The feds say 'here's a pot of money for this acronym project - hurry up and spend it or you won't get it,'" Flynn pointed out. The result is that agencies don't have any incentive to coordinate system development and implementation with the state, and projects invariably end up "paving the cowpath" in order to meet an unrealistic implementation deadline. Yet when the projects fail to work as intended, the CIO gets the blame. For that reason, Flynn said he is completely supportive of the push to convert certain federal programs to block grants, which will give states more control over how the money is spent. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, Gov. William Weld is backing Flynn's use of capital bonds expressly designed for IT projects. While bonds won't cover every IT project in the state - the state's proposed $250 million IT bond covers projects taken from an original list of projects valued at more than $600 million - it does represent the beginning of an effort to coordinate IT planning and funding among the state's key agencies.

FIXING BUREAUCRATIC PROCESSES While fixing political, procurement and funding problems is a step in the right direction, CIOs say their jobs will remain in jeopardy and technology will continue to fail until government attacks its root problems. For decades, government has delivered services using processes that don't work well and data that isn't clean because workers have always been there who knew how to handle the anomalies and deviations. But with management growing familiar with computers and costs dropping, government now wants technology to start running the heart of its operations. "Leaders make glib remarks about how we must use IT to make government more efficient, but they don't appreciate the complexities of dealing with enormous volumes of information," said an exasperated Kolodney. "Reengineering isn't the answer," said Kolodney, "because it doesn't deal with the quality of information." Without any incentive for change, Kolodney believes little will happen. However, one step in the right direction is to shift therisk of systems development toward the consultants and vendors who do business in the government marketplace, he said. "In government, we have always been proud of doing systems development ourselves. That means we have assumed all of the risk. But the risk has become enormous." CIOs would also like to see department and agency heads assume more responsibility for the outcome of IT projects. "The people who own the business own the results," commented Kolodney. He and others say the job of the CIO is to influence and educate, as well as create the state's information infrastructure, not to build the applications themselves. To achieve that goal, CIOs have to be in a position of leadership. By leading, CIOs can help states establish policy, create direction and harness change, said Mike Hale, former CIO of Florida and now the first CIO of Georgia. Besides leading department heads toward responsible use of technology, Hale believes CIOs must know how to chart a course for the future if they are to survive. In Georgia, the future of IT in government lies in public-private partnerships. Hale reports to the Information Technology Policy Council, which includes top-level corporate executives as well as leaders from state and local government and educational institutions. He feels that working closely with the private sector is the wave of the future. "Some of these firms are in the forefront of their industry, which makes them excellent resources for advice and assistance. They also have the ear of the legislators, which can help when setting strategic directions at the policy level or removing barriers when things bog down in the bureaucracy." Agarwal agreed that the survival of CIOs depends on their ability to help lead states into the future. "There's a real opportunity for CIOs who can bring prosperity to states," he said. The big question is how to take IT tools and translate them into tools for economic development. But first, said Kolodney, government must learn how to deal with old data and antique processes in a highly charged political environment. Unless that happens, "you are going to see CIO turnover continue," he cautioned. "And you are going to see fewer good people take these positions and more folks who are unwilling to take the risk necessary to make the improvements."


L.A. Seeking CIO LOS ANGELES - States aren't the only jurisdictions recognizing that managing information technology can require new organization. Los Angeles, a city with more people than some states, created the Information Technology Agency this summer and appointed an interim director. A search is on for a permanent agency head. "This new agency will help bring our city into the world of information technology and improved service to the public," said Mayor Richard Riordan. "This consolidation is an important step toward streamlining City Hall and making government more efficient." The agency replaces two city departments and part of another. These departments had budgets of $45.1 million last year and 741 employees, who will be transferred to the new agency. The Information Technology Agency will coordinate city telecommunications and strategic plans for technology. It should also streamline some operations, as the departments sometimes duplicated efforts.

-----Sidebar----- Steve Kolodney, at the tiller of California's information technology for 11 years, took the position of chief information officer for Washington state Aug. 14. Kolodney replaces George Lindamood, who resigned in June. Describing himself as "very excited" about his new position, Kolodney cited the Washington's progressive posture toward IT as a key reason for moving north. "Washington has a strong interest in communications and in providing information to the public through accessible means," he said. Kolodney also pointed out that Washington is currently the only state where the CIO position is at the cabinet level. "That gives the position a special organizational element." Kolodney headed California's information technology programs from 1983-89 and from 1991-95.