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State CIOs Discuss Next IT Priorities

The Colorado, Michigan and Texas IT czars give their thoughts on state IT projects and future challenges facing public technology professionals.

by / February 29, 2012
Kristin Russell, CIO and Secretary of Technology, Colorado. Photo by Stephen Collector Photo by Stephen Collector

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Government-based cloud solutions, mobile platforms, shared services and cyber security are the next sets of IT challenges facing Colorado, Michigan and Texas, according to those states’ respective CIOs.

CIOs Kristin Russell (Colorado), David Behen (Michigan) and Karen Robinson (Texas) gave a recap of their states’ current IT efforts and future priorities during a keynote roundtable discussion at the CIO Academy on Feb. 29. Carlos Ramos, secretary of the California Technology Agency, moderated the session, which was held at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel.

The CIO Academy is an annual conference of state and local IT officials hosted by Government Technology’s parent company, e.Republic.

Behen felt the emergence and continuing evolution of mobile devices will fundamentally change the way Michigan and other states provides services to state agency customers and citizens. He said that his IT team supports 48,000 internal consumers and all of them want to increased use of mobile technology at the state level.

In order to be successful in the mobile world, however, Behen said a consolidated infrastructure and framework must be established. Michigan has that groundwork laid, having previously centralized its IT services and consolidated its data centers, but questions remain on what the best way is to implement mobile technology into the state’s long-term IT plans.

“The big challenge is going to be how [to] take this new technology and embed that,” Behen said. “The private sector has done some and done some of it really well. But how do we do it to really improve customer service for the citizens that we serve? That’s a huge challenge.”

Russell agreed and added that the success for Colorado is that the state won’t be talking about consolidation as a project in the future. The state is consolidating its 33 data centers down to two. For her state, however, she was adamant that cloud solutions is a key next step in order to increase IT efficiency in the state.

But Russell was critical of the approach vendors have taken to developing platforms for government clients.

“I’m disappointed in the vendor community in their reluctance to engineer and put [research and development] efforts into solutions that governments can actually use,” Russell said. “Typically they are putting R&D into private-sector commercial products and they jury rig them and say ‘here’s the government solution. Our business is holistically different and we need to engineer and architect products that will help us to be more efficient in a public-sector setting.”

As for Texas, Robinson said the next challenge is making cybersecurity a bigger part of the IT culture throughout all the state’s 29 agencies. She explained that the state wants to bring cybersecurity industry experts to Texas in order stay ahead of the issues and be more proactive when it comes to IT security.

Robinson added that she’s focused on doing security assessments throughout state agencies in Texas and expected vendors to step up and provide solutions to help Texas be more successful in its cybersecurity goals.

In addition, Behen said that shared services between states and between the federal government and states has to be a focus of state CIOs. Referring to Michigan’s Medicaid Management Information System (MMIS), Behen said it would be “appalling” if 49 other states bought their own.

The Michigan CIO said that he’s working with seven other states and the Canadian province of Ontario on a multistate initiative to discuss how to share technology among the states.

“I hate to see Wisconsin, Illinois or someone else buy something we have, or vice-versa,” Behen said. “We really have to start asking ourselves ‘who does what best’ and decide how we do that. If we don’t do it best, does another state do it better, or does the private sector do it better?”

Private-Sector Role

The three technology czars may live in vastly different states in regard to size and geography, but all three were in agreement that the private sector holds some valuable “lessons learned” for public-sector IT leaders. Behen, Robinson and Russell all had varying degrees of private sector experience under their belts before taking their current positions.

Prior to landing the Colorado CIO job, Russell worked as vice president of Global IT Service Operations at Oracle where she was responsible for all data centers and computing operations worldwide.

So when she started her work with the state and was told to look at data consolidation as a way to save money, Russell admitted there was a bit of culture shock. She recalled that the prospect of data center consolidation wasn’t all that interesting to her, primarily because the private sector had gotten to the same conclusion a decade earlier.

That private-sector knowledge is something Russell felt state governments need to tap into quickly, in order to maximize efficiency in public IT and improve delivery of services to citizens. She called it an opportunity, as the private sector has in many cases already solved many of the issues facing their public counterparts.

Russell said the operational shift is necessary to advance state IT to the next level.

“What I’ve struggled with is how [to] communicate things that are so foundational to how businesses operate around business principles, economic principles, even technological solutions to people that [aren’t up-to-speed with the concepts],” she said.

Despite the challenges, Russell reported that Colorado had saved $42 million in IT funding so far by consolidation, but it takes a long time to achieve.

“It literally takes years, and not just because of the tactical mechanics of what it means to consolidate,” she said. “It’s about change and people accepting a new reality … but it isn’t for the weak of heart.”


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Brian Heaton

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

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