In what must feel like déjà vu for Carlos Ramos, the Senate Rules Committee on April 9 voted unanimously to recommend him as director of the California Department of Technology.
The California tech czar sat through the confirmation process a second time, which was necessary to comply with a rule brought on by a government reorganization by Gov. Jerry Brown last year that shifted the former California Technology Agency into a department. Ramos was originally confirmed in March 2012.
During the Senate hearing, Ramos answered questions and explained what his office has been working on, talking about the challenges the state faces with respect to technology, and how his office is addressing those challenges. Ramos answered questions from the senators regarding technological innovation, procurement, interoperability and cybersecurity.
Procurement was the issue that received the most attention. Ramos talked about maintaining California's leadership status as far as public-sector innovation, improving the state's track record when it comes to deploying large technology projects, and maintaining a high standard of data security.
California has had well-publicized failures with several large IT projects in recent years, including the partial cancellation of the Department of Motor Vehicles’ modernization project last year. The $208 million project was cancelled after the state spent $50 million to simply complete “minimal work.”
In that case, Ramos told senators, the state launched a “comprehensive assessment” to identify what went wrong and how such a thing can be prevented from happening again. The California Department of Technology is now working with the DMV to meet the assessment's recommendations, which Ramos said will allow the DMV to stay focused and better manage projects.
Procurement will play a large role in better project management for technology projects in the state, Ramos said, and officials are making several changes in that area. They interviewed all the players in the procurement process, Ramos said, including vendors, procurement specialists and departments, to find out how the state could improve the process.
“What we heard is that it takes too long to run a procurement, so we’ve shortened the procurement cycle,” he said. “We’ve eliminated bureaucratic processes that didn’t add value. We’re doing things in parallel now instead of sequentially, and we’re making departments do a lot more up front work before they go out to bid, so that when a bid comes out, it moves a lot faster.”
The new target for procurement, from issuing the RFP to awarding the contract, is six months, Ramos said, and they are now achieving that. He explained that shortening the cycle, along with other procurement changes, allows more companies to compete. This is because they have a better understanding of the process, and can better predict the environment at the time of deployment because it's a timeframe in the near future, he said, rather than possibly several years in the future.
Another thing the state heard, Ramos said, was that there was too little communication between the state and vendors, so they’ve changed the processes for engaging with potential vendors. Previously the state would issue an RFP and then not talk to any vendor until they were ready to bid. Now, Ramos explained, vendors can ask questions before they bid and negotiate during the final bidding process. Not only is this more inviting for vendors, but it also creates more competition and therefore lower prices for the state.
To get small- and medium-sized companies involved in bidding on state projects, the state is now framing its RFPs in a different light. Rather than specifying exactly what they need, the state is now more likely to explain the details of their business problem and then allow the vendors to come up with what they think is an appropriate solution. This method -- rather than being too specific on requirements and limiting what type of solutions will be accepted -- allows smaller companies a chance to participate, Ramos said, and can lead to more innovation.
One of the biggest changes around procurement, Ramos said, is that RFP are now broken into smaller pieces. Recently, for instance, the state put out an RFP for Calnet 3, a broad procurement for technology services -- a project that was broken up into 14 pieces. This approach yielded bids from about 26 vendors, he said. In contrast, the last time the state went through this process, one large RFP was issued, and just two vendors submitted bids -- because the project's size meant that few vendors were even qualified to bid.
Breaking procurement up into smaller pieces encourages competition and innovation, drives down cost, and also means the state gets a better product because it can choose the vendor that is the best fit for each piece, Ramos said.
Another change to procurement is that the state is now developing a method for prequalifying vendors, which looks at the vendor’s experience, finances and customer references so the state will have a mechanism to make sure it doesn't get into a contract with an unqualified company.
On the cybersecurity front. Ramos said the state has rewritten the security standards, policies and procedures, and published them in a central location so all state agencies know what they are and where to find them. The policies also are aligned with national standards and best practices, he said. This, combined with the state's increased training efforts and the creation of a cybersecurity task force, are additional steps toward the Department of Technology's effort to keep the state’s data safe.
As for Ramos' confirmation, Carol Henton, vice president, state, local and education, public sector for the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a tech advocacy group, issued a letter of support, noting his efforts to modernize IT procurement in the state.
In an email to Government Technology, Henton added that Ramos fosters innovation, has taken measures to increase cybersecurity protections in California and has embraced getting the most out of the state’s data.
“With the tenure of public-sector CIOs being two years or less, we think it is both prudent and wise to reconfirm Carlos,” Henton said. “Carlos has sought to put together a senior team of top-notch individuals to oversee some of the high-profile IT projects; he should be permitted the opportunity to work through some of these challenges.”
A full Senate vote to officially reconfirm Ramos is pending.
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