Over the last several years David Behen would often brag that he had the best CIO job in the world as the IT leader of Michigan. Why? “Because I had such strong executive sponsorship: a governor who knew IT better than anybody and a budget director who understood it and had reasons to fund it,” he said. Over three and a half years, he and former budget director John Nixon communicated almost every day either in person or via email, text or phone. “That was a great relationship,” Behen added. “We got along very well from a personal standpoint. We didn’t always agree, but at the end of the day we had the same goals and vision and got a lot done.”

But nothing lasts forever. Nixon recently left the post to return to his native state to become chief business officer at the University of Utah. Behen is taking over Nixon’s spot as director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, and he is quickly building a relationship with the state’s new budget director, John Roberts.

In fact, Michigan’s merger of IT and budget groups into one department several years ago has made a big difference as far as communication goes, Behen said. “Creating one shared services agency really does help with everything — from having one public information officer to our legislative liaisons and their teams,” he added. “It definitely helped that we are all together and talking about the same goals.”

Roberts agrees. “Before they were combined, we saw a lot of people with good intentions but who were perhaps not as effective,” he said. “The department is much more of a driver this way. People from all sides like it, including the customer agencies.”

Increasingly CIOs and budget directors are finding that they need to be on the same wavelength to make the case for IT investments. But those relationships are often strained. Behen has heard horror stories from CIOs in other states who have to write memos to ask for meetings with their budget directors. “Or they haven’t talked to their budget director in six months,” he said.

Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, said some of the tension exists because there is keen awareness of major IT projects that have failed or had serious cost overruns. “Some people point to the health insurance exchange problems, but the concern has been there much longer than that,” he added. “The budget people also have been frustrated because there are dozens of agencies with requests related to IT. The budget folks don’t have the expertise to say which is most important. They need help with that prioritization.” For instance, Pattison said, for a social services solution, the person from that agency must sell a project to a legislative committee, but is there enough involvement from the CIO’s office?

After convening a group of budget directors and CIOs in Boston in 2013, Gartner analyst Jerry Mechling (who also writes for Public CIO’s sister publication, Governing) developed a white paper recommending Five Ways for Government CIOs and Budget Directors to Work Better Together. Topping that list is nurturing the budget director/CIO relationship for closer collaboration.

“Some administrations’ only charge to the CIO is, ‘Don’t let something blow up on our watch, and don’t bother us too much,’” said Mechling, a former budget director of Boston. A governor or mayor may not want to pay too much attention to technology, he explained. Technology tends to get roughly the same budget it had last year, plus or minus a few percentage points. “But there are ways for technology to be a much more powerful force,” Mechling said. “When you ask people in health or public safety about the biggest change in their work in the last 20 years, they will tell you something about computers and the way information flows. But if you keep the technology component isolated, you may miss out on big opportunities. It requires more teamwork and more strategic and creative thinking.” 

Public CIO conducted in-depth interviews with some of the CIOs and budget directors who participated in Gartner’s Boston workshop about the relationship-building they have engaged in and the structural changes they’ve made to bolster the business case for IT investment.

David Raths  |  contributing writer