It’s fair to say that state CIOs fall on a spectrum. On one end, you have reactive types who thrive on pressure and just “keeping the lights on,” and on the other end, those who are looking to the next move and building the right foundation for the future. Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt is the latter.
Surely he has proven his daily operations salt as Chicago’s chief information officer and during his tenure in the private sector, but Bhatt’s real passion and strength seems to reside in mapping what lies ahead for his state — a state he told Government Technology is going places.
We caught up with Bhatt just a day after America contentiously selected the next president, and despite a crackly cellphone connection and the commute in front of him, he presented a positive tone and was ready to talk about the proverbial road ahead.
One of Bhatt’s strong suits is the ability to see opportunity in partnerships. Despite what he jokes is the inclination of those in the technology space to view themselves and their troubles as unique, he is more than comfortable admitting there is a lot to learn from others.
For example, the ink is barely dry on a memorandum of understanding with Telangana, India, which is set to open relations and start the flow of information between the two states. While long-distance partnerships between U.S. cities is fairly commonplace by now, Bhatt sees the opportunities for international collaboration blossoming.
“I think you will see more and more of those things, because frankly, we are finally understanding that even though we take pride in thinking that we are special and different, we are not that much different,” he said. “We can really learn a lot from each other and grow together.”
Bhatt said hopes the constant exchange of ideas and best practices will lead to the development of smarter states on both ends of the agreement.
As the state’s needs and available technology advance, the CIO said he isn’t discounting the potential for partnerships with other foreign governments.
“Basically how can we learn and accelerate, that’s the idea,” he explained.
One of the key priorities of the CIO has been reorganizing and repositioning the state’s technological planning and assets. Since Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an executive order creating the Department of Innovation and Technology and merging all of its IT resources on Jan. 25, 2016, Bhatt said considerable time has been put into successfully restructuring the internal enterprise.
But the work hasn’t stopped there. Building a rapport with local and federal government partners has also been a prime focus for the DoIT team.
“At the same time, we are also focusing on vertical integration and the demand integration aspects in how the state government can work closely with the county government, closely with the municipal government. And upward, how can the state government work closely with the federal government and try to integrate our network vertically?” he said. “We are trying to do as much horizontal alignment with other cities and states. We are also trying to do vertical integration between the various layers of government.”
In addition to working with federal partners like National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) on cybersecurity issues, the state has also turned its attention to empowering city and county government with the tools needed to become smarter government entities.
By making resources available and providing access to infrastructure, Bhatt said small government in Illinois can share the same opportunities for smarter cities as their larger more technologically advanced neighbors.
“So, every town in Illinois can easily become part of the smart cities movement and apply these smart city solutions. They don’t really have to go through their own procurement, etc.,” he said. “Now, we are creating an equalizing opportunity for Sandwich, Ill., Peoria, Rockford, they can be as smart as Chicago.”
While the technological progress of the state of Illinois has been considerable, leaders are also looking to the next big thing for government and the constituency it serves. For Bhatt, several technologies warrant serious attention.
“With the advent of artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, [virtual reality] and driverless automated vehicles, we are going to see a fundamental change in the jobs, technology usages and automation and productivity. How do we, not just in state government but externally, how do we use technology to get future-ready?” he said. “We need to start thinking in the future.”
Plans to cultivate a state innovation center are also in the works. Though the undertaking would come with some financial limitations, a central innovation repository could be a boon to the larger Illinois IT environment and those it serves.
“Obviously it’s going to be on a shoestring budget," Bhatt said. "It’s not going to be an innovation center of a large-scale, but it’s kind of a space which is different from government looking, where we can bring people together, brainstorm and build on that further."
Another glaring opportunity that Bhatt described as “not quite ready for prime time,” is the potential to leverage blockchain technology throughout the government and business enterprise.
The CIO said a working group is exploring what the tools are truly capable of and just how they might improve state processes.
“We are still in the early exploration stages," he told Government Technology. "We are still kind of understanding the applications of this [technology].”
He hopes to know more about where DoIT can take the technology in the new year.