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Florida CIO: Digital Service Moving from 'Startup to Scale Up'

Two years in, the relatively young IT agency is working to build a team, build trust and build up, says CIO Jamie Grant. The process has required a significant shift away from "business as usual."

Florida CIO Jamie Grant
Florida CIO Jamie Grant
Courtesy of Florida Department of Management Services 
The Florida Digital Service (FLDS) has been establishing itself since launching two years ago. The young agency has been working to fill positions and earn trust and now faces the next challenge: ramping up.

“We have survived startup phase … . ’Startup phase’ is ‘do you have a solution to a problem? And are you stubborn and tenacious enough to just keep doing it?’” CIO Jamie Grant told GovTech. “ …Scale is where you find out what you’re made of.”

The organization is cementing and building out its core functions — cybersecurity, data management and service experience — and ensuring it can deliver on them strongly, before tackling additional projects. Grant said scaling will require having a strong team in place, communications strategy and management structure, and ensuring that customers and internal team members all know what to expect from each other.

FLDS formed in 2020 as the state re-organized its IT operations. Grant, who had sponsored the FLDS’ creation during his previous role as a legislator, has since taken the helm as CIO. The agency’s newness, and Grant’s shift over into a new role, has meant he’s been having to work to establish relationships and trust with other state agencies.

But, the CIO said starting fresh also brings advantages, because FLDS isn’t locked into long-term vendor contracts or legacy approaches.

“One of the unique advantages we have with a blank canvas to design this thing is to kind of skip past the renovation, remodel or tear down of antiquated models or antiquated procurements or contracts you inherit; we get to build this thing from the ground up,” Grant said.

That’s already been playing out: “And so, we were able to design a vendor-agnostic, multi-vendor Cybersecurity Operations Center,” he said.

REVAMPING RECRUITMENT


The new agency has been undergoing a burst of hiring efforts, and has currently filled about 40 out of 70 full-time positions, drawing on both short- and long-term talent. Grant said recruiting has become “one of my primary jobs.”

State governments traditionally face certain hurdles in enticing applicants to a field where, Grant commented in January, “the hours are long and the pay sucks.” The FLDS also struggled with significant high-level turnover in 2021, with departures of two CISOs, the chief data officer, chief operations officer and enterprise architect.

Since then, the agency has had more successes building its team.

Despite comparatively lower paychecks in the public sector, the agency has drawn a deputy CISO and acting chief data officer from the private sector, and recruited a new CISO who “moved his family up — and took a tremendous pay cut — from South Florida to come to Tallahassee,” Grant said.

Winning over applicants depends in large part on promoting the mission and culture and ensuring individuals feel like a meaningful part of a team, Grant said.

Private-sector members are also more likely to join government if that switch in sectors is presented as a shorter-term commitment rather than a career-long one.

That means “not making [it] a life-altering choice, as far as ‘I have to completely change careers,’” Grant said. “I think before it was, ‘Hey, the mission is cool, I'd love to work on it, but I don't want a career in government.’”

To achieve this, Grant is trying to create an environment where employees feel welcomed to leave for other jobs, should they see a better opportunity. He hopes that those who move on will speak well of their experience and encourage others to give government a try.

“I tell my team all the time that I want a culture where they can walk into my office and tell me that they've been offered their dream job, or that they're looking at applying for a dream job, and would I be willing to help?” he said.

ON-THE-JOB TRAINING


The agency has also worked to expand its recruitment pool and hire employees who can be trained up.

For one, it removed requirements that candidates bring a minimum number of years of experience or hold specific certifications or degrees. This approach opens the door to experienced applicants who lack these particular elements.

Other tactics include upskilling, including allowing employees to spend work time taking Coursera trainings and certifications — so long as it doesn’t interfere with completing their core responsibilities. And Grant also said the state is launching a Scholars Program through which university students may do cybersecurity work for the state in exchange for pay and course credit.

BUILDING TRUST WITHIN GOVERNMENT


In Jan 2022, Grant told a Florida House subcommittee that the state lacked a clear inventorying of the data held by various agencies, something that hinders activities like cyber defense and recovery efforts. FLDS has been chipping away at that opacity, however, and Grant said his team now has data-sharing agreements with nearly every executive branch agency — up from zero in 2020.

Those agreements both pave the way for better cyber incident response and for FLDS to create a data catalog. Grant said it also could lead to other data-related projects as well.

“I want to have an API catalog that the public can access,” Grant said. “I want to have agencies with the ability to make API calls.”

A new funding model has also shifted how FLDS works with other agencies. It abandoned an older approach under which agencies were billed for their IT solution usages.

“We got out of the business of cost recovery and chargebacks,” Grant said. “There was a strategic decision not to monetize from the agencies … all we're asking them to do is accept and commit to partner: accept the money, accept the people, accept the solutions, support the implementation with us. It doesn't cost you anything other than your commitment as a partner.”
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.