Editor's note: In this series, Public CIO set forth to find answers from several of the nation’s top CIOs who have served or currently are in state, local and federal positions. These firsthand accounts are about how establishing partnerships, trusting and letting go, investing in people, and assessing situations have all been instrumental to smart decision-making. Photo by Jessica Mulholland

The smartest thing I did as CIO of Nebraska was to establish strong partnerships/collaborations with other political subdivisions of government within the state. In Nebraska, political subdivisions of government include public schools, the university system, cities and counties, and the federal government. The Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) is 100 percent public power, so it is also a political subdivision of government.

Partnering/collaboration is not the easiest path to undertake. Establishing trust is essential for effective partnerships, which takes a great deal of time and investment for parties on both sides of the equation. In addition, both sides have extensive memories of all the wrongs they have endured from the other side over the years. It takes time to work through those issues and establish a new relationship that enables everyone to move forward for the good of the partnership. I also learned that much of this partnering could not be “staffed” out. It involved me and my commitment along with the leadership of the political subdivision. As the leaders of our organizations, if we would have been unable to establish this level of trust, what chance did the operational staff have?

As we set up these meetings and moved forward, what lessons did we learn? First and foremost, you must have executive backing. In our case, Gov. Dave Heineman was 100 percent behind our efforts and understood the benefits that could be achieved through these partnerships. Second, you must realize that you will rehash old ground. Without understanding the perspective of each side, you don’t know what obstacles you need to overcome. That may mean hearing how your organization messed up a project 15 years ago, how it affected your potential partner, and acknowledging your errors. Third, in a partnership, neither side gets everything it wants all the time. Once everyone understands this concept, it is easier to compromise on major decisions. Finally, the efforts exerted to establish the partnership are not a one-time exercise. This is an ongoing process that requires continued “care and feeding.” However, one success lays the foundation for many, many new projects.

Three highly visible successes we have seen include a partnership with the University of Nebraska system that established a statewide network providing a high-speed backbone called Network Nebraska. This collaboration has more than doubled capacity across the state at lower and lower costs. The state’s partnership with the NPPD created a jointly owned statewide radio system in place of the two systems being planned. With the NPPD and state pricing their system upgrades at approximately $20 million to $30 million each, the joint $17 million expenditure was seen as a win-win situation. And the partnership between Network Nebraska and the K-20 schools has seen some of the lowest networking and Internet pricing in the nation.

Was it worth the time invested? Absolutely!

Read more stories in the Smartest Thing series