On the job slightly more than 50 days, Rhode Island’s new chief information officer and chief digital officer is focusing on the people, processes and technologies needed to maintain forward momentum on the state’s major technology initiatives.
Bijay Kumar, who was hired July 30, joined the state roughly five months after the resignations of Human Services Director Melba Depeña Affigne and Chief Digital Officer Thom Guertin, who oversaw design and implementation of the troubled Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).
Formerly in the private sector with the likes of toymaker Hasbro Inc. and Staples, Kumar said he is finding that both staff and technology exist “at different levels of maturity” at the state. Though he expressed confidence in the state's deep well of talent, he acknowledged the historical difficulty in retaining skilled personnel in the public sector.
“In terms of people, it is definitely harder to attract and retain staff talent in government. I believe that is something which all government agencies and all state and federal folks do face,” Kumar said.
“A lot of times, the funds we have drive the amount of innovation as well as application optimization we can do. To be creative within the constraints, you have to do an exceptional job,” he added.
For Kumar, the process of optimizing Rhode Island IT started with in-the-field meetings with agency directors, and collaborating with an assortment of state personnel to leverage information sharing and best practices.
Kumar said he has created 60-day, 90-day and one-year plans for Rhode Island IT and adjusted those following his 30-day meeting with Gov. Gina Raimondo. Earlier this year, the governor’s concern about delays and cost overruns with the UHIP launch prompted her to freeze new IT projects.
But Kumar said that freeze has since been lifted and the state is moving ahead on a number of major initiatives. On July 5, the state launched the Rhode Island Modernization System (RIMS), which will link branch offices of the state's Division of Motor Vehicles and partner agencies.
The project, which saw the state take contractor Hewlett-Packard to court for alleged breach of contract, replaced a 40-year-old mainframe. It is aimed at decreasing wait times, which were clocked at an average of nearly two hours in March.
Other Rhode Island Initiatives
• The Rhode Island Department of Corrections is transitioning from its Prison Community Data System to a .NET app with an Oracle front end, and implementing a new electronic medical records system to replace one at the end of its life.
• The Rhode Island Department of Transportation recently implemented a new system to capture and track information in order to meet reporting requirements related to civil rights.
Another focus for Kumar is working to stabilize and actively manage UHIP, its new eligibility portal for health and human services and the first such update since the 1980s. The system is intended to handle social services including HealthSource RI insurance accounts, Medicaid enrollment and state Supplemental Security Income.
Earlier delays with the launch of the UHIP system prompted federal officials to ask for more detail on planned improvements — and the state, in January, to suspend payments to the vendor that built it, Deloitte.
Though Kumar said Raimondo did the right thing in temporarily freezing IT launches at the time, he added that the state and the vendor are collaborating to make its rollout a success.
“There is a governance process in place, there are escalations in place with Deloitte, the teams are working well together,” he said. “We have to make sure that we stabilize the system. We continue to hold Deloitte accountable.”
When it comes to Rhode Island’s enterprise architecture, the CIO described it as “mostly centralized” with more opportunities ahead. Some agencies are retaining their own IT shops, with purchases including software and hardware licensing done in a centralized manner.
The CIO said IT governance and active management are key facets of his approach to the position, and the state will have a dedicated project management function to enable managers to effectively handle multiple assignments.
“My strategy is to work with all the agencies and quasi-agencies to have processes which are collaborative and cohesive and standard across everything we support,” he said.
Rhode Island, Kumar said, is at “the beginning of a long journey,” but moving in the right direction.