March 30, 2009 By Dan Ross
Politics come with all government leadership positions and the CIO is no exception. It's inevitable because elected officials and their constituents have interests; technology corporations understand the value of lobbying activities; and, government makes large recurring investments in technology to carry out its mission.
Politics can manifest itself in many forms, ranging from a simple request for CIOs to speak with or receive a presentation from a particular vendor to significant pressure to purchase, give bid evaluation preference to or to "sole source" a technology buy.
Before you get indignant, declare this an injustice and vow to fight or resist any political pressure, my advice to you is to take a step back and think about your attitude. Businesses pay a lot of taxes and, as such, they should have the right to express their views to you and their elected representatives. Lobbying isn't inherently evil. It's the recognized process not-for-profits, private industry, government agencies, individuals and savvy CIOs use to express their interests and concerns.
Government and its processes can prove to be an impenetrable barrier to businesses trying to market products and services. Add to that the fact, vendor registration and purchasing processes are generally inconsistent from state to state and between levels and branches across government. It's easy to understand why someone would seek help to short-circuit the process. Identifying government decision-makers and gaining access to them can be another challenge to businesses.
My advice is to embrace the situation. The first step is to understand that, as a public-sector CIO, you will experience political pressure. You cannot avoid it. However, it's possible to manage the situation, meet everyone's needs (most of the time) and get out your message in the process.
First things first. An excellent starting point is to establish and communicate enterprise architecture standards that are as open as is feasible for your organization. While you're at it, why not seek broad vendor input in the process to help begin a relationship of openness and trust? Publish and communicate these standards so everyone, including interested elected officials know they exist. Be sure to articulate why the standards exist (security, ease in rolling out patches, cost-savings, etc.) and that they are a result of a collaborative effort, which included input from the private sector.
Another ally to educate is your procurement unit. If they understand the "why" they will support your efforts to maintain the standards.
Review your business processes. Look for every opportunity to reduce barriers between government and the private sector. That will buy you a lot of good will with businesses and elected officials. Take time to prepare a detailed strategic plan for your organization. It's OK to seek vendor input in this process too. The strategic plan becomes the road map that guides the discussion regarding technology procurement. Make it readily available in print, electronically and publish it on your Web site. This document lets everyone know what direction you're heading.
Architecture standards and a strategic plan establish the boundaries for technology acquisition by your organization. By involving the business community in setting direction and standards you provide the basis for a transparent, trusting relationship and insulate yourself from quite a bit of potential political pressure.
A mature relationship will allow you to partner with the technology companies and their lobbyists to carry a shared message to elected representatives. In Missouri, the message they carried at no charge is that: "through consolidation, significant cost-savings can and have been achieved. In order to keep state government technology current, which helps Missouri businesses and is of interest to companies seeking to relocate, those savings need to be reinvested in technologies to move the state forward." That's a message we can all agree on.
Politics doesn't have to be a pressure packed adversarial sport. With a little transparency, communication and inclusiveness, it can be a rewarding process for all parties.
Dan Ross is the former CIO of Missouri. He is the founder of Bridging Gaps LLC., a consultancy to help businesses connect with the decision-makers in government and to assist governments with their consolidation and organizational efficiency efforts. Ross can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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