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A Talk With PK Agarwal

"I first want good customer service. In a shared services organization, if you cannot provide better service than a private-sector organization, why should they do business with us?"

by / November 9, 2005
On Sept. 28, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed PK Agarwal as director of the Department of Technology Services.

Agarwal has more than 15 years of experience as a chief information officer in both the public and private sectors. He has been vice president of ACS Inc. since 2003 where he worked with state and local governments to help transform information technology. Previously, he served as executive vice president and chief information officer for NIC Inc. for three years. From 1996 to 2000 Agarwal was chief information officer for the Franchise Tax Board and from 1984 to 1996 he was chief of the Office of Information Services within the Department of General Services. His state government experience also includes three years as manager of the Database Development Bureau for the Department of Social Services and one year as a technical project manager for the Department of Health Services. Agarwal began his career as a management consultant and customer manager for EDS Corporation from 1975 to 1978.

Late last month, ten days after his swearing in, Government Technology talked to Agarwal about his new position and what it means to IT in California state government.

"Every state has a different IT model," said Agarwal. "By design the California CIO's office is a policy CIO, which means Clark [Kelso, state CIO] drives the policy as well as the governance. And agencies are responsible for their applications, as well as some portion of the infrastructure." California, Agarwal explained, has now designed the Department of Technology Services to handle shared services, which will include server farms and telecommunications as well as possibly including desktop services, portals, Web services and the providing of e-mail services.

"So that is this department's mission," said Agarwal, "to be the premium provider of shared services to state agencies."

Agarwal compared California's approach to several other states, saying it is not as centralized as Michigan -- "where they take everything and move it into one organization. We are probably closer to Texas in that regard," he said.

Agarwal says the biggest projects on his plate are the consolidation of the former Teale Data Center and the former Health and Human Services Data Center. "These data centers are as big as data centers get." Another large project is CALNET, which is a partnership with two private-sector companies and the State of California. The budget for the department is about $200 million, said Agarwal, and it has a staff of some 750.

Agarwal said that IT consolidation was addressed in the California Performance Review. "Probably the fact that I am in this job today is a result of CPR." He said, the part of the CPR initiatives that I am most familiar with, the IT portion, were good ideas which were collected and given momentum and coordination by CPR.

Agarwal said that his experience in both public and private sectors will be helpful. "It helps you to look at both sides of the picture. I really see the value that the private sector can bring to these partnerships. I think I can bring in more ideas on how to leverage what's out there more effectively."

One thing he learned, he said, is that public-private partnerships should have some standards of conduct, a "Partner Bill of Rights," he calls it. "Public-sector folks are extremely busy, they are being constantly pressured to do more with less, but you have to develop relationships and we have to observe some basic courtesies, like returning phone calls in a certain period of time."

Agarwal says his focus is on four basic priorities. "I first want good customer service. In a shared services organization, if you cannot provide better service than a private-sector organization, why should they do business with us?" To provide that level of service, he said, "requires a highly trained staff component." He said that California has a good IT Management Academy, and that will help during the expected retirement bubble of IT staff. "The third part is that this is a technology business that is changing every day. So we need to innovate in a timely manner." The fourth, priority, said Agarwal, is financial. "We are a business also, and our prices need to be reasonable, and we need to be accountable for how we spend money.

"So I'm telling our staff that we need to worry about our customers, about employees, innovation, and about money. Any business has to worry about those four things -- and that's going to be our driving force."

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Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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