After a two-year hiatus, there’s momentum among Florida’s elected leaders to bring back the state’s technology agency and rehire a CIO. The move is predictable. Since 2005, the state has pulled the plug twice on the office — and this would be the second time it’s revived.

But government departments are not interchangeable widgets. The stops and starts have left Florida with a patchwork of technology that some say isn’t what it should be. Others fear that Florida is falling behind as other states push forward with large-scale enterprise projects that utilize cloud computing and other scalable technology.

Florida has been left to play catch-up by trying to once again restart its fledgling statewide IT agency, which some lament wasn’t all that effective in the first place. In the meantime, state agencies, local governments and the companies that provide services to Florida all are waiting to see what will emerge from new legislation that aims to create an Agency for State Technology, replacing the defunct Agency for Enterprise Information Technology (AEIT).

The state’s history suggests that it could take years for Florida to build back what has been lost. Even so, the tech community seems guardedly optimistic that the state finally is heading in the right direction. But there is a lot of work ahead to get everyone on the same page.

As of mid-March, bills under review in the Florida House and Senate would appropriate $4.8 million for the new agency and fund 25 staff positions, nine more than the old AEIT.

The Senate version of the bill is from state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a former Yahoo executive who is among the growing chorus of lawmakers who say Florida must do a better job of managing its $733 million in annual technology spending and high-priced projects such as the state’s unemployment assistance system.

“We’re a $75 billion business without a chief information officer,” Ring said this year, according to The Miami Herald. “That doesn’t exist in any business, I assure you. Nor should that exist in any governmental entity.”

David Taylor, CIO, FloridaDavid Taylor, Florida’s CIO during AEIT’s five-year run (pictured at left), says a new Agency for State Technology would be an “incremental” step forward.

Unlike past efforts, the legislation would give the CIO management authority over the state’s primary data centers, including the Southwood Shared Resource Center, Northwood Shared Resource Center and the Northwest Regional Data Center. Data center consolidation was a point of contention when AEIT was defunded in 2012.

The new agency, housed within the Florida Department of Management Services, would report directly to the governor. The agency would develop state technology policy and enterprise architecture, oversee expensive projects, standardize and consolidate IT services, and enact procurement changes. A technology advisory council would be created to make recommendations as needed. These functions and features are typical for an agency of its kind.

Nevertheless, Taylor said the bill provides only for a very limited organization, albeit one that’s slightly larger than AEIT.

“It’s still going to be very challenging for such a small group of people to coordinate that big of an enterprise,” said Taylor, who is currently vice president of state and local solutions for Software AG.

State officials have been relatively quiet about the tech agency’s proposed revival. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration said officials were unavailable for interviews for this story. Calls to agency-level CIOs also were unreturned. A spokesman from the governor’s office pointed out that Scott’s state budget proposal calls for funding the new agency.

“Gov. Scott is committed to increasing consistency and accountability in Florida’s information technology projects. In the interim, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state’s data centers have dedicated staff to provide security,” the spokesman wrote in a brief email.

If the tech agency is resurrected, the new state CIO faces a long road to rebuild relationships, especially in local government. City and county CIOs in Florida say that coordination between the state and local agencies has been disjointed over the years and at times nonexistent.

“I think everybody is hungry for leadership at the state level,” said Martin County CIO Kevin Kryzda. “Either there has been a strong leader who hasn’t been supported, or it’s been the other way around. I can tell you there is a lot of doubt. I don’t know where this comes from, but there was a lot of distrust about the state meddling in the locals’ business.”

Kryzda said local governments are eager for Florida to take on the task of setting statewide IT standards. Today there are no standards for digital signatures, formats, records management, archiving and a slew of other issues, he said. For those standards that do exist, each city and county is interpreting them differently.

Without standards, Martin County and other local governments aren’t moving into the cloud to the degree that they might otherwise, Kryzda said, adding that he has kept Martin County’s email and data on premises instead of outsourcing it.

Orlando CIO Rosa Akhtarkhavari said that when she needs advice or guidance, she skips the state level entirely and prefers to go straight to the federal General Services Administration. Apparently that non-communication is running both ways.

“I have not seen [Florida] reaching out to the city of Orlando, and we aren’t a small city,” said Akhtarkhavari. “I do not know if their focus was more at the state agencies versus the locals, and I do not know if there was a proper vision and strategy for that [state CIO] position. … If there was, it was not communicated.”

Still, Akhtarkhavari is watching the newest attempt to bring in a state CIO with great interest and believes there could be great value if it happens.

“With the Internet of Everything era, big data, shared services, data transparency — if you don’t have it organized at the state level, you continue to be isolated as a local government,” she said.

The good comes with the bad for technology companies that are pursuing business with the Florida government. On one hand, without a centralized office dictating policy and projects for state agencies, vendors can approach those agencies one by one and work with them individually. That can lead to more procurement opportunities, although the stakes are smaller because there aren’t as many large, enterprise-level contracts in the pipeline.

David Smith, director of state and local government for Citrix, said his job has become more difficult. He must speak with many more people to inform the individual agencies of what technology products are available, and he wonders if some companies aren’t as willing to go to those lengths. Some companies aren’t going to focus on small Florida agencies if they can go to another state with a centralized IT organization and larger sales opportunities, he said.

Florida is an important market for Citrix, particularly since the company headquarters are in Fort Lauderdale. Smith said he has spoken with members of the Legislature about how his company and the private sector can help push the state’s technology agenda forward.

Some state agencies are talking with one another, Smith said, but they could be more coordinated: “There is some sharing of information but I don’t think there’s anything out there trying to help Florida innovate as a state. Individual agencies are looking at innovation and what may help them, but in the big picture that’s kind of lacking.”

Some agencies are deploying cloud computing, and others aren’t. Pockets of innovation that do exist tend to be smaller.

The slow progress appears to extend into Florida’s movement toward IT consolidation. The bulk of Florida’s consolidation tends to involve moving systems that are already virtually hosted at an agency into one of the state’s primary data centers, Smith said. Florida is therefore realizing some efficiencies, but not to the extent it potentially could.

After the AEIT was abolished in 2012, a statewide Microsoft Exchange cloud email system Taylor was working on also was canceled due to funding cuts. The system was housed in one of the state’s data centers, and some agencies already had migrated to the platform. Taylor said the state has been trying to implement shared services, including a health-care help desk, even though there has been little centralized leadership for the past two years.

Why is Florida struggling so mightily when other states are finding success and stability in the arena of managing technology? There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut reason, but there could be a few contributing factors.

One is that the power over technology spending rests predominantly with the Florida Legislature, where both chambers have been under Republican control since 1996. The GOP has been reducing taxes and cutting spending on education and environmental funding, so there simply isn’t much money available, said Kevin Wagner, an associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University who writes about IT issues. His guess is that the technology office looks like a good target for budget cuts compared to other places.

“I don’t think it’s a particular anger with technology, but I think it’s not as easy to defend as crime or education,” Wagner said.

Another possibility is that the ups and downs of the CIO’s office are merely cyclical. Florida State University political science professor Charles Barrilleaux said the state has a long history of building up departments and tearing them down, going back to the 1970s when Florida created “super agencies” and then broke them up — and later put them back together again.

Smith added that he doesn’t think there’s anything in particular about Florida and its technology services that’s causing the turmoil. “It’s a little puzzling why it’s happened,” he said.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of chance.

“We’re probably more random than a lot of places these days,” Barrilleaux said.

Matt Williams Matt Williams  |  Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.