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Preserving CIOs' Legacies Under New State Governor Administrations

State CIOs who could be replaced after the next election cycle share their strategies for keeping projects intact under a new administration.

by / April 5, 2010

Photo: Colorado CIO Mike Locatis. Photo courtesy of Colorado

At least 23 state CIOs could be shown the door after the gubernatorial races in November. An unusually large number of governors are not seeking re-election this year, and the incoming chief executives will likely appoint their own person to the top technology job.

That leaves many current state CIOs pondering how to preserve key initiatives. Some of these state IT leaders have spent years implementing IT consolidations, outsourcing contracts, revising service standards and enduring other polarizing endeavors. To protect these efforts, CIOs like California's Teri Takai, Colorado's Mike Locatis and New York's Melodie Mayberry-Stewart have tactics in place for keeping their prized projects implemented, post-election.

CIOs have several motivations for preserving their legacies. Many executives who take public-sector appointments do so because they care about public service, and the prospect of having what they believe are best practices dismantled by the next administration is disheartening, said Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

Furthermore, drastic course changes can damage a CIO's career. The job often serves as a springboard to other public-sector positions or lucrative private-sector consulting jobs, so touting reforms that already are discarded won't increase the chances of scoring a new position.

Grooming Your Allies

For major IT initiatives to stay intact under a new administration, the current CIO must recruit influential players who'll be around after the CIO departs. A state CIO can typically form these alliances by promoting like-minded and long-term state employees, building legislative support and making key vendors feel like partners.

For an incoming CIO, one of the first points of contact is usually the aforementioned long-term career employee, said John Kost, group vice president for Gartner. An opportunity exists when, in the beginning, a new CIO lacks knowledge about an agency's daily functions and therefore is especially open to suggestions. The Colorado Office of Information Technology expects to maximize that opportunity. For the state's landmark IT consolidation, Locatis scoured his work force, finding the most capable people with years of experience and enthusiasm for his vision -- and he promoted them.

"These are dynamic leaders who I would pit against anyone I've worked with in the private sector," said Locatis, who was an executive with Time Warner Cable before joining public service. "They don't work at the pleasure of the governor. They are career state employees."

Next year, if the Locatis strategy goes as planned, his replacement -- should he have one -- will take suggestions from those specially selected employees.

Takai is using a similar approach, minus the promotions. Takai's forthcoming California IT consolidation has seven general components, and she assigned two senior-level CIOs to head each one. Rather than dictate how the consolidation should happen to those CIOs, Takai instructed them to come up with the ideas. Takai figures they will be likelier to advocate their own consolidation policies to the new administration rather than policies from her.

"Some of the teams are actually going further than what I might have pushed them to do," Takai said, "because they're seeing what the possibilities are." (Editor's note: As Public CIO went to press, President Barack Obama nominated Takai to become assistant secretary for networks and information integration for the U.S. Department of Defense.)

The most difficult protection for a newcomer to undo is legislation that mandates a CIO's initiatives. If legislators aren't interested in enforcing it, however, the legislation can "lie like a dead fish," Robinson said. Locatis fortified his consolidation with a bipartisan bill backed by 98 percent of the Colorado General Assembly, and Mayberry-Stewart spends substantial time fostering alliances with legislators.

"As they're considering new laws, or as we propose departmental bills coming from the governor's office, they've been fully briefed on the importance, significance and impact that legislation will have," Mayberry-Stewart said.

She also sees potential allies among the state's top-tier technology vendors. Instead of treating them as simple order-takers, Mayberry-Stewart interacts with them like partners. She figures if her vision catches fire among private-sector executives, they will advocate that vision to future administrations. Nurturing those vendor relationships requires frequent briefings and requests for insight, Mayberry-Stewart said, adding that if the agenda doesn't resonate personally with the executives, they'll often abandon it without a fight if it's not one of the new governor's immediate priorities.

Robinson pointed out that if a vendor has a financial stake in projects connected to that vision, the vendor can wield influence that extends to the legislature. "They have lobbyists," he said, "and they will lobby on behalf of their own project, for sure."

Transition Reports that Garner Attention

According to Kost, CIOs typically squander a prime opportunity for legacy preservation by not paying enough attention to the report they submit to the incoming governor's transition team. This transition report briefs the incoming CIO on the outgoing administration's IT progress, priorities and unfinished business. What many see as a formality is actually a vehicle for outgoing CIOs to make a case for their ideas to an incoming staff that's unarmed with information of its own.

The problem, however, is that the transition team doesn't usually find the transition report helpful, said Kost, whose 2006 research paper, called After the Election: Supporting and Surviving the Transition, criticized typical transition reports and argued for how to fix them.

In writing such a report, Kost suggested being specific and as succinct as possible in descriptions and recommendations, and being candid about weaknesses. Those attributes, Kost said, give outgoing CIOs the best shot at having their recommendations taken seriously.

Additionally Kost said the messaging in the outgoing CIOs' transition reports should align with statements made by the incoming governor's campaign. Freshly selected CIOs may not know much about their agencies, Kost said, but they do understand the agendas of the new governors who appointed them.

"It becomes sort of a marketing campaign based on what that governor-elect said during the campaign in order to link together a project as something they said they wanted to accomplish," Kost explained.

Mayberry-Stewart said sitting CIOs should study the campaigns early on to have their marketing approaches ready by transition time.

"If you look at their transition papers, white papers, speeches, articles or quotes, you know where they're coming from," Mayberry-Stewart said, adding another bit of advice: When she became CIO in 2007, IT staffers scrambled to provide the transition report information she requested. She said this leaves a negative impression on the transition team. "To me, that's a red flag that you weren't on top of it to begin with," she said.

She promises that her replacement won't experience the same thing, because having that data within reach day-to-day is how she manages her agency anyway. Her steady stream of briefings with vendors, legislators and other officials makes ready-on-demand data a necessity of doing business.

"It's what you should be doing as a CIO," Mayberry-Stewart said, "so that by the time you're doing the transition document, you're really just fine-tuning what you already have been using to manage and operate your organization."

In Colorado, Locatis is opting for a somewhat unorthodox strategy. He's already marketing his ideas to all Colorado gubernatorial candidates before their campaigns even catch stride. His staff crafted a detailed report of the state's IT landscape, titled Transforming Colorado Government for Today and the Future. The document, which Locatis plans to submit as his transition report, has more of a marketing collateral style than a typical transition report. And based on the strength of the current IT strategy's bipartisan endorsements, he's betting the candidates will make this IT approach part of their own campaigns.

"I've already gotten an acknowledgment from one of the campaigns that they're reviewing it," Locatis said.

Policy Letter Paper Trail

Sometimes whether or not an incoming CIO retains a current policy is a question of formality. Takai said she thinks her replacement will be more apt to keep current initiatives if they're clearly defined and mandated in official documents. This way California's next CIO doesn't learn about them just from conversations with existing staff and the transition report.

"A lot of times you can set directions, but if there aren't artifacts that you can actually point to from administration to administration, you really have no chance at continuity," Takai said.

She's been busy issuing policy letters backed up by executive orders on numerous aspects of the state's IT, including processes and policies for IT strategic planning, capital planning, enterprise architecture, open source software and telework. Takai expects her policy letters to be especially influential because they have support from the business units that the Office of the State CIO serves.

Data that Undercuts Detractors

It's possible a new CIO will arrive with philosophical objections to the prior CIO's IT consolidation or outsourcing agreement, or that a hostile civil servant will try luring the fledgling administration into changing directions. But if certain kinds of data reporting mechanisms are built into projects, the data could make it difficult to argue against those projects.

Takai noted several IT categories on which her office needed to meet and report performance targets. "There are specific metrics around energy utilization, energy reduction, data center square-footage, e-mail consolidation and network consolidation," she said.

And in New York, Mayberry-Stewart has a performance data dashboard that will serve the same purpose. "We collect quantitative information to show our improvements, and those are the things you would hope would be part of any transition packet," she said. "If those things are moving forward, and the right progress is being made, perhaps you don't want to try to fix something that's not broken."

But it's quite possible these tactics won't work -- the next governor could reverse the former governor's executive orders, or a critical legislative sponsor of past IT legislation could lose his or her seat, leaving no one to enforce the statute.

Robinson said the outgoing CIO should expect disappointment -- and he ought to know. Robinson was the deputy in the Kentucky CIO's Office for eight years until 2004. He resigned before being replaced by incoming Gov. Ernie Fletcher who demoted the CIO job from being a cabinet-level position.

"That can kind of pull the rug out from under you," Robinson said, "and it does take a while to get some of these major initiatives going."

But there is a good chance that disappointment won't last long. Kost, a former CIO of Michigan, said he was attached to the job when he first left. But as the phone calls from his old office seeking advice waned, detachment set in -- and quickly.

"I wasn't there anymore," Kost said. "I had another job to do."


Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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