It's about some of those issues further upstream that may have precipitated homelessness, including unemployment, illness and incarceration."

By working with agency commissioners, Gibbs developed a vision for more collaboration. But she soon realized those plans might go nowhere without a technological overhaul. Gibbs attacked the issue in two ways: She created a strategic road map for how the problem could be solved with the help of outside consultant Deloitte. And she brought in Bherwani to oversee technology strategy and architecture across the nine organizations that compose New York City's HHS domain.

Bherwani took on the job, not as glorified project manager, but as he described it, as a "forward-looking strategist who ensures that agency information and systems don't become siloed." He has more than 20 years' experience in the public and private sectors, most recently as CIO of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Bherwani's plan started with the simple proposition that the HHS needed a data-driven transformation, rather than a makeover based on computer systems. "The goal wasn't to make operations more efficient and compliant by a certain percent, but to reshape the way we think about service delivery," he said. "We also wanted to leverage our IT assets, not throw them away."

Risks and Rewards

Reshaping service delivery means not just building a client-centric approach to how work is done, but also providing better access to information and greater accountability through the use of more flexible technology. Bherwani's challenge has been to craft a strategy that would involve, to various degrees, the input of 13 city agencies -- some of which dwarf the size of many state agencies across the country.

The first secret to making the project work starts with the CEO-CIO relationship between Gibbs and Bherwani. "Deputy Mayor [Gibbs] is very passionate about changing the way we do service delivery," Bherwani said. "My job is to figure out how to get that done with technology." Although that close partnership is unusual in the public sector, it has allowed HHS-Connect to move forward with speed, clarity and relatively little turbulence.

The other secret is that Bherwani and Gibbs were able to determine how to integrate everyone's thoughts into a single vision, break that down to an outcome model, set goals and use metrics to measure progress. This model gave the project a sufficient amount of transparency and accountability to silence the naysayers.

They did this through a governance structure that was set down in a series of executive orders. They required all participating agencies to share their data unless it was against the law and that all agency commissioners cooperate with the Office of the CIO for HHS. In addition, every participating commissioner was required to attend all executive-level technology meetings. No substitutes were allowed, according to Bherwani.

"We set it up this way because we felt it was important to have active involvement of all the top-level commissioners in order to structure the project for success," he explained. "Put all these steps we took together, and they help to mitigate the risk in the project."

Controlling risk was a big factor. "We took the culture of the project's team, which was very risk-averse, and got them to embrace risk. You can't pretend there won't be barriers along the way. The earlier you know about them, the more time you have to fix them before the train gets off the track."

Bherwani decided to put the project's various risk factors into what he calls a "risk register," a dashboard that tracks the probability, impact and time to impact of potential problems. With it, key stakeholders -- the commissioners -- could see exactly where issues might occur next, and which the agencies were impacting project risk.

"That kind of transparency leads to accountability

Tod Newcombe  |  Contributing Editor