Politics As Usual

This year's November elections promise to put many new faces into state legislatures and governor's offices, and the changing political landscape is creating challenges for state CIOs.

by / July 3, 2002
Though the American political machine has chugged on for more than 200 years, it has never worked gracefully: a municipal government wishing to assess a new tax on a neighborhood to pay for street lights has to ask for permission; the procedure of turning a bill into a law was purposefully designed to be an obstacle-strewn, frustrating path; and electing officials to represent the public is an unpredictable process that never seems to get easier.

Elections bring new political blood to state capitols, and no state agency is safe from the repercussions of political turnover. Though that's politics as usual, the status of IT projects as high-profile endeavors that politicians pay close attention to is a new phenomenon, and CIOs will have to take the right steps to ensure the long-term success and life of such projects.

Thirty-six states will be electing governors this year, and 46 states will see races for state senators and representatives.

"Both of them will have extremely high turnover this time around," said Tim Storey, elections analyst of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It just so happens that this 2002 election is one where you've got the biggest spike in a number of races for governor. You also have a big spike of governors stepping down."

Storey said approximately half of the governors' races are for open seats, meaning the potential for 18 new governors in the country. Additionally, more than 6,200 candidates for state senators and representatives will also be running in political races.

The two factors causing the high turnover in the state capitols are redistricting and term limits, he said, noting that the redistricting process itself sours many incumbents from running for office, leading to a large number of retirements.

"Average legislative turnover is in the 17 [percent] to 28 percent range," Storey said. "With this redistricting year coming up and, in past redistricting cycles, you can assume that legislative turnover is going to be 25 percent and maybe higher. Term limits for state legislators is a relatively recent phenomenon; really, it's only been in the last 10 years that voters, through the initiative process, have placed term limits on their legislators, so term limits are just now taking effect in a number of states."

Worst Case Scenari

Michigan faces the greatest amount of turnover in its Legislature, Storey said: Almost 75 percent of the state's Senate will be taken out by term limits.

"Some of those are House members going to the Senate, so they'll have some knowledge of state government," he said. "They'll have some knowledge of the IT infrastructure of the state, so you may not have to start from scratch in terms of the education."

For CIOs, the message is straightforward.

"You had better be preparing a strategy to educate those policy-makers on the information infrastructure of the state, the investment that the state has made and the history of that investment," said Storey. "Legislators - it's wired into their DNA; that's their job to take out the fine-tooth comb."

He pointed out that CIOs will have to focus on educating incoming legislators because term limits mean they will be the leadership in as little as two to four years. "You really need to make an effort to reach out to them when they're coming in the door," he said.

Another challenge is the political parity between the two major parties, which have nearly the same number of seats in state legislatures and control nearly the same number of chambers across the country -- something that has not happened in almost a decade, Storey said.

"It's a competitive year, and you expect surprises," he said. "Expect that the majority party could go down in whatever chamber you're looking at because both parties are very competitive right now. There are a number of chambers that have swung back and forth between the Republicans and the Democrats in recent years."

With those party changes come new leadership and new committee chairs in the chambers, another challenge to the process of educating legislators about IT issues.

Confidence Game

Education is preservation, Storey said.

Ten or 20 years ago, before the emergence of term limits, the leadership of a chamber set the tone for the rank and file members. Those leaders set the agenda, drove particular issues and had the key contacts to make things happen, he said. Now, the rank and file pays much closer attention to policy issues and the state's direction.

"New legislators are reasonable folks, and I think what they want is to understand technology and have some confidence that it's a wise use of the taxpayers' money," Storey said. "I don't think they come in with the philosophy of, 'We're going to change the world. We're going to scrap it and go in a whole new direction.' That's generally the exception. What most of them want is agencies to instill confidence that you're going in the right direction."

A CIO's best bet to instill confidence in legislators and members of a new administration and to help craft a logical IT plan, said Jacque Passino, director of Michigan's Department of Information Technology.

Passino is under a tight timeline: He was appointed to his post in November 2001 by Gov. John Engler, and the governor will finish his term in January 2003 -- giving Passino 14 months from taking the post to get things done. Passino said he doesn't expect to have a job after the new administration comes in.

He said the DIT has been trying not to move too fast, though the department is obviously aware of the fact that Gov. Engler's term ends at the end of the calendar year.

"We're talking about a very significant change, and, if you try to get speed, your impact is superficial," he said. "I've spent my career doing projects, and I've approached this as a 14-month project. We've got clear objectives that we've shared not only with the governor before I got hired, but with the Legislature now and with all of the agencies.

"I can't tell you that everybody [thinks] this is a wonderful idea, but the majority of the people I've talked to are very positive about the change and have been very supportive," he continued.

Clearly, the new administration has the power to change what they want, Passino said, but his overall objective is to leave a businesslike and logical plan for moving forward in the next calendar year.

"My objective is that as I sit down in December to talk to some transition team, which is inevitable, that they leave that conversation saying, 'Well, that makes sense. We understand what's been done and why. We understand where the priorities are and what there is next to do,'" he said.

You Can't Fix What's Not Broken

Passino said he's making a conscious effort to address several other objectives: organizing the DIT; building on the infrastructure created by the e-Michigan Office, which was created to help state agencies make the move toward electronic government; consolidating application servers into a secure data center; bringing standardized network access to state agencies; and centralizing contract management.

Incoming legislators and members of a new administration are partners in any IT project, he said, because they approve spending the state's money on behalf of their constituents.

"When you talk to legislators about these Web services to their constituents, it gets their attention," he said. "We've been taking people to visit some of these places and helping them better understand what we're doing on behalf of their constituents, and any new administration will want to do a good job."

Aside from demonstrating that everything is working smoothly and provides real benefits to users, CIOs can also present their plans, projects or strategies in a way that will make incoming governors or legislators less likely to break out the dreaded red pen.

"The challenge is for CIOs to talk about their projects in terms of as a component part of an overall program," said Thom Rubel, director of state IT programs in the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices. "You won't find many CIOs out there talking about an IT project, per se, because legislators and governors both view those as, 'If it's an IT project, what are the outcomes? What is it we're trying to achieve?' I think CIOs are becoming increasingly sensitive to that."

Though the concern about giving IT projects and plans life after a new administration takes the helm or new legislators take office is business as usual, good planning should take that into account, Rubel said.

"It happens in any transition, and a good planner will put in place a project that takes that into consideration up front," he said. "Is the applicability of this so narrow that it will fall because somebody, after we're gone, will look at it and say 'Why?' and there's no good answer so, good bye. CIOs have to implement broad-based solutions."

Leaving A Legacy

Getting to know the legislature and the new administration is crucial, but getting to know the agencies you are working with is even more important to building a lasting IT strategy or implementation, said Wendy Rayner, former CIO of New Jersey and a partner of Tatum CIO Partners.

"It's who the business clients or customers you're working with are," said Rayner, who helped oversee the implementation of a three-year strategic plan immediately prior to the election of a new governor in New Jersey. "Employee involvement; collaboration; consensus building; building relationships with every department, from the Cabinet down to the CIOs to the business leaders in the departments.

"If you're going to do anything -- strategic planning, data management, electronic government, CRM, GIS -- the ultimate implementation, the ultimate success lies in the agencies," she said. "They have to see that it's important, contribute and get involved and shape it, because, ultimately, they're going to implement it. If they don't implement it, it has no chance of surviving. You can't do it to them, and you can't do it for them. They need to be part of the process to build the solution; then they'll implement it. Otherwise, in many cases, they'll fight you because it's not something they want, know how to do, or are willing to do."

Those relationships will also help when a CIO gets push back on a particular project or initiative.

CIOs only have a few years, Rayner said, and focusing on what can be done in that short time is also key to leaving a legacy that will stand the test of changing political environments.

It's disheartening when hard work gets torn down, she said, but it's something that CIOs can prevent if they take the proper steps.

Help Is On The Way

CIOs themselves are fairly new kids on the block and are being forced to learn the political ropes on the job, said Rock Regan, president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) and CIO of Connecticut.

"CIO is still a relatively new term in state government," Regan said. "It's only been five, six years, but we've seen enough of turnover and we've seen enough of good turnovers to know [what we need to do]."

Though CIOs, as part of the governor's team, do give initiatives a high profile, those initiatives have a good chance of surviving a transition for other reasons, he said.

"CIOs are part of the governor's team, and it's almost expected that if the governor is turning over, you will have a new CIO," Regan said. "That's not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn't mean that the staff turns over, so you've got the institutional knowledge that understands the capabilities you have and where the improvements are that need to be made. It's up to the CIO to translate that into terms that governors can understand, that fellow commissioners can understand and then sell it to the legislature."

NASCIO is putting together information to help incoming CIOs understand their role and how to implement sound, long-term projects that will stand the test of time, Regan said, adding that the topic generated much discussion at the recent NASCIO conference in the spring.

"We had a CIO only meeting, and we talked about developing a sort of CIO 101 pack for new CIOs," he said. "Here's the resources available to you; here are some peers you can talk to; and here are some of the things we deal with in preparing and justifying budgets. NASCIO is going to develop some tools to help new CIOs. The NASCIO executive committee is working on it, and we're trying to program it into our budget."

Regan said NASCIO will release a definitive timeline for the CIO 101 at the October NASCIO conference.

Institutionalizing IT

Perhaps the biggest problem with political turnover is the disruption it brings to a particular IT agenda in a state, said Georgia Marsh, associate director of the Illinois' Department of Revenue.

Marsh believes the way to insulate IT initiatives from political turnover is to institutionalize technology into a state's business processes.

"It's just the way that it is that when new people come into office, they'd like to put their own stamp on something, and they would like to have something be theirs," she said. "There has to be a way in which we can integrate the things that we're doing with our electronic-government agenda so it's no longer an agenda that is not part and parcel of everything we do."

When a new office holder is elected to the legislature, she offered as an example, the legislature doesn't alter its normal operations -- attendance is still called the same way and bills go through the normal legislative process because the way a legislature works is institutionalized.

The key is the relationships that agencies form with one another.

"One of the things I'm looking at is the kind of relationships we form that are inter-jurisdictional as well as outside of our own jurisdictions, which involve different levels of government," Marsh said. "Once you bring different levels of government into something, I truly believe that you have more of a chance of moving forward and continuing to move forward with initiatives.

"More people have a stake in it, and not everyone is turning over at the same time," she continued. "It gives you more of an opportunity for continuity, in addition to the residual of this [being] inherently the right thing to do and what we're all striving to do. It begins to provide that insulation from any one group or any one new participant from totally taking something away."

It's not that IT has a target on its back; shielding anything in government from politics impossible.

CIOs should also be careful not to view the projects or initiatives they work on as special because something that's special is separate from the institutional processes that are part of state government, she said.

"We sometimes take these projects, and rather than making them part of everything else, they become very special things which are looked at as not being part of the business process," she said. "If it's not part and parcel of a business process, it looks like something that's expendable."