Like many state capitals, Olympia, Wash., has a street named for Thomas Jefferson. In this, the only state named for a U.S. president, it is a historical accident rather than deliberate design that the role of technology and the CIO in state government can be traced by walking down Jefferson Street, which borders the east side of the Capitol campus.

In many respects, this is a story of nondescript buildings — and one that isn’t. A plain white building with a blue awning that once headquartered the former Department of Information Services (DIS) has been adapted to the needs of new kids at the cabinet table (the Department of Early Learning). Across the street, a subterranean level of the nearby mammoth poured-concrete Office Building 2 is home to a sprawling, aging data center. The space was converted into a raised-floor data center when DIS was created 25 years ago as the result of an early effort at consolidation, which brought together formerly discrete service centers.

A couple of years ago, DIS was merged out of existence and the data center declared obsolete. The agency’s functions were split up and reassigned to three new separate entities, including the formal creation of an office of the state CIO. The other two new agencies — a shared services super-agency and a separate operating agency to manage technologies in transition (mainframe computing, telecommunications and email) — are housed in a $225 million office complex adjoining the new state data center, a 50,000-square-foot facility built just up Jefferson Street from Office Building 2 in 2009 that is still largely empty. (The Office of the CIO’s digs are serviceable, but even new hires note that the building is only partially occupied because of structural damage from an earthquake a decade ago.)

The people who thought the new arrangement was a good idea are gone. The same can be said of the new data center. It was done on the former governor’s watch, which works out to be three CIOs ago. That may not be an eternity in Internet time, it just feels like it, particularly for those charged with making it all work.

You don’t have to be a Jefferson-style pragmatist or innovator — Thomas Jefferson saw agriculture as the queen of the sciences and is credited for inventing the first (albeit analog) laptop — to draw some lessons from the buffeting that the state has taken from the winds of change. The experience here points to the importance of holding things loosely while staying true to a few bedrock principles.

So what have we learned?

  • Everything is more temporary than you think. Those of us who worked at the late DIS believed it was the permanent solution for providing IT services to public agencies in the state. And we would have bet against the cabinet-level CIO role reverting into the central budget shop.
  • Assets can become liabilities faster than you can say “cloud.” There are two enterprise data centers on Jefferson Street: one the state doesn’t want anymore; the other it can’t afford. Officials concede that the state’s computation needs were overestimated when the new one was built, even if the cloud had not blown in. The Washington state case differs only in scale, not type. It turns out that owning data centers does not need to be a permanent fixture on the IT landscape either.
  • You are probably measured on the wrong metrics. It has been commonplace for compensation and incentives for agency heads to be structured around growing the number of employees, the size of the budget and even the number of square feet occupied under their control. A successful CIO with an effective strategy will have all those numbers running the other way.

Instead, take a page from Jefferson Street’s namesake — be a technology statesman or -woman. Contend for what the proper use of technology can do in the public interest toward a more perfect union. Avoid specious arguments about whether public CIOs should be recruited from within government or brought in from industry. Recognize that success relies on a combination of private-sector discipline and public mission, not to mention knowing your way around the politics and processes of seats of government.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer