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Michigan Gets Buy-in from the Top in IT Decisions (Opinion)

Gov. Rick Snyder supports IT as fundamental.

by / December 4, 2012

We’re paying attention to Michigan on the cover of this issue because it’s hard to imagine a state with stronger executive support for strategic investments in technology. That support starts at the very top, with Gov. Rick Snyder, whose 2010 campaign slogan was “one tough nerd.”

Snyder is a former private-sector tech executive who jokes that he could dust off his COBOL programming skills and work on some of the state’s ancient systems — although, seriously, he’s aiming to replace them instead. Snyder sees new and better technology as key to citizen satisfaction with state and local government services.

One of the governor’s first moves was to hire a like-minded budget director. John Nixon, former budget director for Utah, now heads the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. Nixon is the rare finance officer who doesn’t see IT as a cost to be cut. Instead, he views technology as fundamental to meeting future demands — and this year he put nearly $50 million of continuing funding into the state budget to modernize IT systems.

“I support technology as a budget director because I know that we’re never going to keep up with the demands on state services without a strong IT infrastructure,” he said. “So we need to make smart investments that will help us maintain structural stability.”

Support like that puts state CIO David Behen in an enviable position. He’s already identified nearly 20 new projects, many of them large legacy replacements that will be conducted over multiple years with the new funding. Those dollars will come with pressure to perform and demands for accountability. But Michigan’s longstanding IT centralization gives Behen some valuable tools for getting the job done, like authority over statewide technology staff and budget.

NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson put it this way: “Michigan has some unique circumstances and personalities that have all come together, and they certainly have an innovation agenda. That’s different from having a technology services agenda. They have a different mindset about how IT can be transformative.”

We thought the circumstances in Michigan were unique, too. In this month’s cover story, we give you a closer look at what Snyder, Nixon and Behen are trying to do and how they are working together to do it. This will be a story worth following over the next few years as Snyder’s team hits its stride.

By the way, I asked the governor what he meant by his “tough nerd” campaign slogan. Here’s what he had to say: “I’m a nerd, and I’m proud of it. My definition of a nerd is someone who loves to learn. I love to learn about everything and it drives people crazy sometimes. But I have this philosophy of relentless positive action — no blame, no credit, let’s just use common sense to solve problems.”

Maybe the nation’s statehouses could use a few more nerds.


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