California Lawmakers Want Better Communication on IT Projects

State agency CIOs and private-sector companies were encouraged to speak openly and often with California legislators at the 2015 California Public Sector CIO Academy.

by / February 25, 2015
From left to right: California CIO Carlos Ramos, Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, former Assemblymember Joan Buchanan, Assemblymember Ken Cooley. Government Technology/Brian Heaton

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Early engagement and frank discussions are the essential first steps state agency CIOs need to take when building relationships with elected officials, according to a trio of California lawmakers at the 2015 California Public Sector CIO Academy on Feb. 25.

Current Assemblymembers Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova; and Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks; joined former Assemblymember Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, in advising technologists from both the public and private sectors to speak candidly to legislators about projects they're involved in.

The panel –  moderated by California CIO Carlos Ramos – also noted that tech leaders need to come to the table with solutions in mind and follow through on promises made, in order to build trust among lawmakers.

“Hopefully, you can tell [legislators] that you're on time and on budget, but if you're not, they need to know, and they need to know why,” Buchanan said, referring to technology initiatives. “None of us like the big surprise. I think if you have that ongoing communication, you will generate much more support for your projects.”

During the academy, which was hosted by e.Republic Inc., Government Technology's parent company, Buchanan outlined three major points for CIOs and representatives to follow when meeting with lawmakers:

  • Identify the problem you're trying to solve and be prepared to explain it.
  • Bring solutions to the table and the details behind them.
  • Be clear why the project is good for the state, or the state agency, and be prepared to discuss the reasons behind it.

The panel discussion comes on the heels of a report that a California Department of Consumer Affairs IT project is flawed and will require an additional $96 million to complete.

Ramos asked Cooley what agencies could do to “change the narrative” among lawmakers and the press, which Ramos said he felt only recognized problems rather than success stories. Cooley replied that legislators want a level of thoughtfulness to anticipate problems and work through them.

“Visualize the transition and have it within yourself to say, 'Here's how we go from here to there,'" Cooley said. “It's going to take a big person … but it's complicated, because it's not just the software, but the people.”

Cooley added that Californians expect “great things” from state IT, particularly since the state is home to Silicon Valley. But Jan Ross, IT director of the State Treasurer's Office, challenged his remarks during the Q&A portion of the panel. Ross explained that while the private sector often operates with a mantra of “fail fast, fail often,” that's a “hard sell” for taxpayers. She encouraged legislators to be clear with state agencies just how much tolerance they have for IT project failure.

The lawmakers didn't mince words when asked by Ramos how the private sector could better engage the Legislature. Buchanan was clear that vendors need to partner better with agencies and consistently deliver the same message during both hearings and private meetings.

In addition, Buchanan said the private sector needs to live up to the promises it makes during project negotiations and conduct itself integrity and honesty.

“My biggest frustration as a legislator [was] when big companies bid on big projects and they promise their 'A' team, and they deliver their 'C' team,” she said. “It happens all the time, and if any of you think we don't notice it, we do notice it.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.