Oklahoma CIO Alex Pettit stands on the state data center’s raised floor and points to a mismatched row of server racks he calls purgatory. The jumble of equipment has been plucked from state agencies and dropped into the gleaming new facility in Oklahoma City — part of an aggressive IT consolidation that’s reaching its halfway point.

“This is how they come from the agencies as we consolidate them,” Pettit says, during a tour in late January. “We’ve got an IBM rack, a Dell rack, a Compaq rack. We bring them in as they are.”

Applications in purgatory are steadily being transferred to racks of new blade servers — Pettit calls this area heaven — where they’ll run on virtual machines and tap into shared storage. The formal migration process has been under way for about a year, long enough to bring equipment from 55 agencies into the central facility. Ultimately IT infrastructure from 132 state agencies will make the move.

Like most statewide consolidation efforts, Oklahoma’s initiative promises to cut the cost of running IT in state government. The move also aims to boost service levels by modernizing equipment and housing it in a state-of-the-art facility.

Oklahoma CIO Alex Pettit says consolidation has saved the state close to $90 million so far, beating the original projections. Photo by David McNeese

Located a few blocks from the state Capitol, the new data center will keep critical systems running regardless of what the state’s unpredictable weather dishes out. The building is designed to withstand a category EF5 tornado — with wind speeds in excess of 200 mph — and its massive diesel generators can power the equipment inside for about two weeks on 30,000 gallons of fuel stored at the facility.

But the new data center is only the most visible sign of the consolidation plan. The initiative also envisions broader use of shared services among state agencies. And state leaders hope to entice local governments into shared services partnerships, as well, starting with an effort targeting local school districts known as Open Range.

Pettit says the ultimate success of Oklahoma’s transformation hinges on the state’s ability to greatly expand its shared services strategy. So building and deploying those services will be a priority for Pettit’s Information Services Division (ISD), even as it rushes to push equipment from another 77 state agencies through purgatory and into heaven.

Oklahoma’s consolidation plan was launched by two state lawmakers: Reps. Jason Murphey and David Derby. Both are conservative Republicans who see tech-driven efficiency as a way to shrink government and protect taxpayer dollars. They’re also young — in their mid-30s — making them part of a new generation of elected leaders who are comfortable with technology and want to know why government doesn’t make better use of it. Together, they’ve been instrumental in moving Oklahoma out of the IT dark ages.

Oklahoma Rep. Jason Murphey chairs the House Government Modernization Committee, a forum for IT-powered reforms. Photo by David McNeese

Murphey, founder of a Web development company before his election to the House in 2006, chairs the House Government Modernization Committee, an organization with growing influence on how Oklahoma deploys technology to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs.

“It’s absolutely a great venue for addressing these types of issues. It’s created a culture of ideas and innovative concepts,” said Murphey, adding that the committee is a magnet for younger House members. “I do think there is a generational aspect to this, most certainly.”

Derby — another modernization committee member — grew up with PCs and video games. But he’s a somewhat reluctant IT expert. “I have a degree in forensic chemistry, and I’m now a pharmacist,” he said. “I went into this IT stuff kicking and screaming.” Still, he credits Oklahoma’s legislative term limits with opening the door to younger lawmakers with new ideas. “I think it’s a generational shift, and because of that turnover you get younger blood and you find modern ways to do things,” he said.

Derby says he and Murphey have formed an effective partnership on the committee. “This is right up Murphey’s alley — he’s an IT guy, so we tag-team. We have different sets of contacts, so we feed off of each other.”

Murphey and Derby have pushed multiple IT consolidation bills through the legislative process — starting with passage of Derby’s 2008 measure to hire a cabinet-level CIO and perform a statewide assessment of Oklahoma’s technology operations. It was Derby’s second try; a similar bill had failed the year before.

Ironically Derby says opposition to the bill came from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats saw the measure as a step toward shrinking government, he says, while Republicans accused him of trying to expand government by creating a new high-level CIO position. “Getting it passed was like pulling teeth,” Derby said.

With the bill finally in place, the state hired Pettit, former CIO of Denton, Texas, who led his city to a second-place finish in the Center for Digital Government’s annual Digital Cities Survey a few years earlier. Pettit launched an IT assessment which concluded that Oklahoma could save more than $100 million within the first three years of consolidation. The assessment, conducted by IT consulting company Capgemini, found expensive duplicate technology throughout the state government, including 76 financial systems, 48 reporting and analytics applications, and 129 email and BlackBerry servers.

Rep. David Derby, author of Oklahoma’s IT consolidation law.

Armed with those findings, Derby introduced another bill aimed at pulling systems and IT staff together underneath the state CIO and eliminating system redundancies. Although technology bills tend to fly under the radar, this one certainly didn’t. Passing the measure became a high-wire act after Gov. Mary Fallin called for IT consolidation in her 2011 State of the State address, making it an important part of her effort to close a $600 million budget shortfall.

“Those were some of the longest weeks of my life,” Murphey said of the fight to deliver the bill to Fallin’s desk for signing. “Agencies … very aggressively defended their turf and were willing to make all kinds of Armageddon-type predictions of what would happen if this reform did go through. We had to deal with those predictions one by one and address them.”

Those discussions led to some modifications, such as additional safeguards for law enforcement data. But ultimately the governor’s support for the measure throughout 2012 budget negotiations wore down opposition. The Capgemini savings estimates were another key selling point, Murphey added, along with the fact that Pettit was already onboard and ready to lead the consolidation effort.

“There were certain entities that could see the handwriting on the wall. So they were willing to bargain,” he said. “Anytime you have that level of attention being paid, some entities will hedge their bets that would otherwise oppose it.”

In the end, the bill had enough political muscle behind it to clear the House and Senate. Fallin signed the measure into law on May 25, 2011.

Now the changes appear to be paying off. Pettit says consolidation has saved the state $84.5 million since the law was passed, and he expects to chalk up reductions worth another $40 million by the end of July — easily beating the original Capgemini projections. Pettit’s so confident in the plan’s effectiveness that he recently agreed to produce additional savings of 3 percent annually for all consolidated agencies over the remainder of the initiative, which is projected to last another three years.

“As we bring in more resources and assets through the transformation process, I can realize greater efficiencies for everyone,” he said. “We’re getting better as we go forward.”

Despite the payback so far, however, both Murphey and Derby are impatient with lingering agency resistance to consolidation. “I hate the fact that I sometimes have to beat people over the head to get them to understand,” Derby said. “We’re not using dot-matrix anymore. Let’s go; let’s do this.”

Still Derby says he’s “getting happier” with the pace — and both he and Murphey credit the state CIO with pushing the plan forward. Murphey says he communicates frequently with Pettit to gauge the initiative’s progress and remove statutory roadblocks.

“[Pettit] knows that we very much want to hold him accountable, but we give him whatever tools he needs to get the job done,” Murphey said. “I’m incredibly impressed with his commitment to the process. Also, Alex hasn’t backed down in the face of political opposition when those bureaucracies refuse to consolidate or lawyer up.”

Along with moving agency servers and applications into the state data center, Pettit’s ISD created a series of performance metrics that are reported on the state website. The ISD has absorbed nearly 1,000 IT professionals who formerly worked for individual agencies. A good percentage of this staff now will specialize in creating applications that can be shared among agencies with similar business needs, although a relatively small number of ISD employees will remain “embedded” in individual agencies to handle requirements that are truly unique.

All of Oklahoma’s 132 state agencies have been sorted into broad business categories, which will become the cornerstone of a shared services strategy. Pettit says all state operations can be boiled down into seven functions: education, entitlement/insurance, health, public safety, construction/natural resources, licensing/back-office and revenue collection. “Those categories are where we have opportunities for shared services,” he said. “Right now those business services are unique to each agency. We’re trying very hard to bring them together.”

For instance, Pettit recently put the brakes on a project to build an eligibility portal for Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services. The effort is being retooled to fit the needs of any agency that determines eligibility for state programs.

He says growing the shared services portfolio is fundamental to unlocking the full value of Oklahoma’s transformation plan. “That’s where we have the opportunity to really make a huge difference, not only in the cost of services but in providing better services for citizens,” he said. “That’s going to be the thing that determines if we are successful.”

For agencies like the Oklahoma Department of Labor, consolidation already is a game-changer. The department has nearly completed the process of transferring infrastructure and applications to the ISD. Labor Commissioner Mark Costello says the move reversed years of underinvestment in the department’s technology.

“Pettit and his crew really brought this agency out of the DOS age and into the light,” said Costello, who ran a telecom software company before his appointment as labor commissioner in 2011. “We had some software that was on its deathbed.”

Although his agency had good people, they had poor resources, Costello says. As a result, managers lived in fear that one of the department’s old systems would crash beyond recovery. In addition, the department’s three-person IT staff was largely isolated from others in the state who performed the same kind of work.

“We now have the ability to access hundreds of IT staff and managers,” Costello said. “I imagine there are a lot of agencies out there that are held captive by limitations of their IT staff.”

Besides gaining much better access to IT resources, he expects to dramatically cut the amount of money the department spends on technology — perhaps by as much 70 percent over time. Ultimately Costello says his department will spend less money to do a better job — which is what Murphey and Derby had in mind all along.

And they’re not done yet. Derby has authored 2013 legislation to transfer operation of Oklahoma’s OneNet statewide fiber network to Pettit. The network currently is run by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. Derby contends that shifting OneNet to the state IT agency would make the high-speed network more affordable for state and local agencies. “I have 512 agencies that can’t hook up to it because they’re just priced out of the market,” he said.

Another idea under consideration this year is creating a transparency portal to inform citizens of agency data breaches. “Bureaucracies tend to cover those up and keep those affected by data loss in the dark,” Murphey said. “So how can we use technology to expose them?”

Such a portal must be carefully designed not to provide too much vulnerability data to cybercrooks, he says. But it would provide valuable information to Oklahoma residents — and put beneficial pressure on state agencies. “Once a breach is noticed, agencies with similar vulnerabilities will say, ‘I’m going to fix this thing,’” he said. “I think a public-facing portal will end up being used more by agencies than internal tools would be, just because it’s a standardized interface that can be quickly accessed. And they’ll be able to inquire privately to get more detail to help fix their vulnerability.”

The state’s newly centralized IT structure strengthens Oklahoma’s ability to enact technology-powered reforms, adds Murphey, since they no longer need to be deployed on an agency-by-agency basis. That’ll only make it easier for the Government Modernization Committee to continue challenging the status quo.

“We’re going to be very introspective on how we can use technology to cut the cost to the taxpayer and improve efficiency,” Murphey said. “We’ll also spend a lot of time looking at transparency issues. We want to empower citizens to hold government accountable using data 2.0 concepts.”

Steve Towns, Editor
Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.