The Odd Couple

Conservative senator and liberal CIO forge alliance to overhaul Wisconsin IT policy.

by / January 6, 2004
When Matt Miszewski became Wisconsin's CIO in March 2003, one of his first introductions to the Legislature was a meeting with Joint Finance Committee member Sen. Ted Kanavas, in which Kanavas told Miszewski that his budget would be slashed by $40 million.

Miszewski, appointed by a Democratic governor, had two options: recognize an "opportunity" to reorganize the state's use of IT, or resist and allow the Republican senator, whose party rules the Legislature, to make life miserable for him and the governor.

"I said, 'You obviously understood what you were getting into when you took this job,'" Kanavas said. "I said, 'Do you realize the opportunity you have in front of you?' He said, 'Absolutely.' He got it."

Thus began an uncommon bond between the liberal CIO and the conservative lawmaker, who put partisan politics aside to accomplish a common goal: help reduce the state's budget deficit by implementing an enterprise approach to IT. It's a novel approach that the two, and others, say can and should be done more often around the country.

"CIOs should be involved in planning for state IT and need to provide information to legislators to support state IT planning and development," said Maryann Trauger, information technology coordinator of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Aldona Valicenti, who recently retired as CIO of Kentucky, said it's crucial for a CIO to have the support of legislators. "The partnership that Matt has in Wisconsin is a very good one," said Valicenti. "It's very important to have legislative support for the CIO agenda, and probably most important to have that support for funding and legislation."

Miszewski understood the governor needed to trim $3.2 billion from the state budget, and one of the best places to cut was from the fat-laden IT budget. He understood Wisconsin's IT procurement practices were shortsighted and costly, but most importantly, he realized changing the situation demanded collaboration and a unique partnership.

"That's an understatement," Miszewski said of the unusual alliance. "I was appointed by a liberal Democratic governor and [Kavanas] is, by all estimations, a conservative Republican. I get a lot of funny looks. But I think the reason our relationship works so well is because that doesn't matter to either of us. We joke a lot about politics, but when we work it's pretty seriously about technology."

Kanavas agreed -- sort of.

"We disagree on almost all the policy we go through," he said. "He's a liberal Democrat. I think he was hit in the head as a child. But we don't talk about it, because whenever we talk about it, I destroy him in debate and he loses his confidence."

Joking aside, the two are committed to developing an enterprise-wide IT plan for the state and reforming a culture of inertia that can derail progress in government. Kanavas talked about the importance of defining each agency's core mission, and developing metrics for that agency and a culture of solving problems and moving forward.

"In other words, if the agency's job is to provide health and human services, how fast are caseloads being processed, and what are the kinds of things you're trying to do?" Kanavas said. "To accomplish those things, you've got to have systems that are going to help you create that kind of culture. That's what's desperately missing around the country."

One of the first orders of business in Wisconsin was to create the Enterprise Technology Division. As the division's administrator, Miszewski's job is to create a horizontal, enterprise-wide approach to IT and raze information silos.

More specifically it means consolidation of duplicate services; seat licensing instead of new IT purchasing; performance-based budgeting; and enterprise-wide accounting, human resources, e-procurement, GIS and business intelligence data systems. It also means learning a lesson from business: What's important is not how many dollars you spend on IT, but how you spend IT dollars.

Paving the Way
Kanavas said his proposed $40 million cut in state IT spending drew blank stares in the finance committee. The plan called for consolidation of services, staff reductions and a collaborative effort.

"You would have thought I was from Jupiter," he said. "People were like, 'What is this? We've never seen a motion that looked like this in our collective memory."'

His alliance with Miszewski helped pave the way, however. "I knew I could look across the table at Matt and say, 'Matt's prepared to do this.'"

After much deliberation and education within the finance committee, Miszewski and Kavanas drove home the point that the proposal wasn't partisan budget cutting, but an attempt at significant reform.

Even after committee members agreed that change was needed, they didn't know how to get there, Kanavas said. "They just didn't get it. You've got to change the culture of these organizations to make real change take hold."

Cooperation was fundamental to pulling off the reforms.

"It's vital. It's too important for us not to do. Whether it's a Republican governor, a Democratic governor or an independent governor," Miszewski said. "What the senator and I are attempting to do is drive out waste from the system, and that waste is a missed opportunity to drive forward your governor's plan. In every state they should be looking to do the same sorts of things we're doing."

Kanavas now travels the country speaking on the subject, and he's incredulous at how far away some states are from adopting this sort of strategy. "The problem is that so many people get tied up with partisan issues, or they get tied up with ideology or 'I'm in the executive branch or the legislative branch,' and suddenly they see it as conflict and not opportunity."

Oceans Apart
"We've made a lot of progress," Kanavas said, "and we're going to make more because Matt and I know what we're doing."

Though oceans apart in terms of ideology, the pair enjoy common experience and knowledge that fuels the bond. Both come from IT backgrounds, and both learned from experience in the private sector. That private-sector experience is a big reason the two have meshed so well, according to Kanavas. "We saw what happened in the 1990s with information systems and the way enterprise management was able to create so much productivity in the enterprises we were working in."

Kanavas spent 12 years in the software industry, co-founding Premier Software Technologies, which was sold to Active Software. Before his appointment as CIO, Miszewski was an attorney and founding partner in People Political, a firm that provides political data management tools to organizations and candidates for public office.

The difference between government and private business is the "sense of mission in terms of solving issues and moving forward" that's inherent in successful private business operations, Kanavas said.

A shared vision for changing Wisconsin's IT culture -- and Kanavas' aggressiveness -- fueled the state's IT reformation.

"We forged a bond that we were going to dive in here and just get to work so we could meet our business objective, which was to close the deficit, make the agencies work, reduce head count and overtime to reduce the cost of the business model, and then really focus on the core missions of the agencies," Kanavas said.

"We had just done this in business," he added. "That's what the late '90s were all about. We had just done all of this downsizing in our private worlds."

Targets for reform weren't difficult to find. Kanavas said that five different state agencies had issued RFPs for human resource systems at the same time.

"I saw that and looked at Matt and said, 'Are you kidding me? This is absurd.' For Pete's sake, stop reinventing the wheel at every agency," he said. "Let agencies really focus in on who they are and what they're supposed to do."

He questioned, for instance, the state Department of Administration's approach to a human resources system project in Madison, Wis. "Why weren't we able to negotiate an opportunity for the city of Milwaukee to use the same thing, and have security and share databases like they do in the real world but not in government? It's really an embarrassment, and it's got to change."

Much of the burden of changing Wisconsin's IT culture falls on Miszewski, and he feels it. "A lot of what the senator does is meant to keep me accountable to the people. I think that's a great thing for Wisconsin."

Miszewski's job is to make people move and make this happen, Kanavas said. "He knows I'm watching. I told him, 'You execute this, or I execute you.'"

Indeed, Kanavas continues to propose legislation intended to push the process along -- including a proposal to mandate the use of certain types of ERP systems -- and Miszewski has to keep up. "It keeps me on my game," said the CIO. "I've got to be paying attention all the time as to what's coming up next."

Miszewski may work closely with Kanavas, but he's not shy about criticizing legislation he thinks could be improved.

"[Kanavas] has a bill in the Legislature that's just a little too detailed and a little misguided, specifically on the procurement angle," Miszewski said. Fortunately their differences usually lie in the details, not overall goals, such as implementing shared systems for human resources, payroll and budgeting, he added.

For his part, Kanavas expressed confidence in their ability to reach an agreement.

"I don't know what bill he's talking about, but the next time I see him, I'll ask him," said the senator. "We'll grind it out. We'll sit down and figure out where the differences lie and why."

The Fear Factor
So why doesn't this sort of collaboration happen more often? Kanavas and Miszewski cite fear as a key impediment.

"It's a fear of reaching across the isle," Miszewski said. "There's not enough trust there."

Kanavas said the problem runs deeper.

"Too many people in government are lifers who haven't experienced enough to manage change, and they don't want change because change typically would mean they would be gone," he said. "They got a degree in IT management, didn't get a job at HP or IBM, and suddenly found themselves working for the state for 25 years. That's been the experience in Wisconsin, at least."

But Kanavas said collaboration actually breeds greater job security because employees who embrace change and efficiency are more valuable to an organization.

The senator also harshly criticized government CIOs who are appointed more for political connections than IT skills and experience.

"Too many CIOs are guys who used to run the Kiwanis," Kanavas said. "Too bad for us because where we should be getting CIOs is from large enterprises that loan them to us, like HP."

Building Bridges
Miszewski said it helps for CIOs to take a politically agnostic approach because they'll likely need the support of an adversary some point.

"It's probably the key to the position," he said. "When I took the job, I certainly thought I'd be doing more technical implementations. But I spend 90 percent of my time talking to people, convincing them what we're doing is good, showing them the books and letting them know what the program is to get them to buy into a centralized authority."

That outreach effort also includes state legislators, who are asked to be experts on hundreds of matters and may have to be brought up to speed on technology issues. Wisconsin lawmakers routinely hear the dialog of Miszewski and Kanavas on the finance committee floor and often receive phone calls from Miszewski at the request of Kanavas.

"I may say, 'So-and-so doesn't understand this, call that person,"' Kanavas said.

The fact that the advice may be coming from someone from a different party is an asset, not a liability. "Our Legislature is controlled by Republicans," Miszewski said. "It certainly makes sense to build some bridges to get some things accomplished, and the governor understands that."

Miszewski said failing to reach out to the opposing party would be a dereliction of his duties and an impediment to the governor's plan. "You don't want people in this position who can't work well with people who disagree with them. I'm an extremely partisan person, but when you're vested with this trust of managing the state's IT resources, it's wrong not to build bridges across the isle. The CIO has got to be made of Teflon."

The enterprise approach is taking hold. One result is that vendors can no longer sidestep the CIO and pitch products directly to lawmakers or department heads, according to Miszewski.

"It was a huge problem," he said. "Now that we've got folks talking on a regular basis under the dome, we don't see that anymore. Vendors know they should come here first. They know people are going to take an enterprise perspective in the state of Wisconsin."

That's equally important to Kanavas.

"One of the things I believe is somebody's got to run this thing. You can't sidestep the guy running it," he said. "It's like any organization where you have the people who make the policy and the people who execute the policy. We need Matt to be a strong executive player in this. What's also important is that he has to respect and engage the Legislature and the policy component because that's how we're going to judge him."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor