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New Generation of Public CIOs Bring Talent, Innovation

Despite the challenges of working in the public sector, a new generation of CIOs is making itsmark with change and creativity.

by / June 24, 2008

What enables some CIOs to make sweeping changes, while others struggle to have an impact?

Some CIOs find themselves swimming upstream against a turbulent combination of dysfunctional organizations and political leaders scared of technological change. Yet across the country, a pool of new talent is entering the CIO ranks -- many bringing private-sector experience to their new roles -- and finding themselves in a position to instill real change. These CIOs are making progress, in part because they have developed a sophisticated understanding of the political and business objectives of their jurisdictions and made clear how the IT organization can play a constructive role.

Public CIO's editors chose six of these leaders to profile, because they are emblematic of a new type of government IT executive focused on innovation, and in some cases extending the definition of the traditional CIO's role.

The Entrepreneur
Vivek Kundra
Chief Technology Officer, Washington, D.C.

Long before he became Washington, D.C.'s chief technology officer (CTO) in 2007, Vivek Kundra knew there were shortcomings with the district's use of technology.

"My dad has taught at Calvin Coolidge High School here for 16 years," said 33-year-old Kundra. "When I was in college, I would spend a considerable amount of time helping him with his school computers because IT wouldn't show up. I have known about the dismal state the public school system's technology was in for many years."

Hired last year by Mayor Adrian Fenty to make big changes in how the district uses technology, Kundra is combining his experience working as the assistant secretary of commerce and trade for Virginia and as an executive of Evincible Software, a startup company that develops digital and electronic signature software.

In essence, he is trying to bring the startup mentality to the public sector. One of his first discoveries as CTO was that people going for coffee in Washington's Dupont Circle had more computing power from their laptops than the average police officer. "I thought we had to look at the market forces allowing computing power in our homes -- let's get that for our police officers, our health and human service workers and our schools," said Kundra.

One approach is cutting back on large-scale development projects for office headquarters in favor of more mobile tools for field staff. Another is turning to low-cost solutions such as Google applications, open source tools and Software-as-a-Service. Kundra is convinced that by becoming an early adopter of breakthrough technology, the district can improve government operations and service delivery.

Why spend millions on enterprise applications, he reasons, when district workers can use low-cost Web tools, such as Intuit's QuickBase, for collaboration?

"I am comfortable making bets and accepting that some of those may fail," Kundra said, "while realizing that the ones that succeed we can scale easily and realize real structural value."

The key, he said, is to focus on the business process. An example of Kundra's approach is a procurement Web site for the construction of an evidence warehouse for the police department. Built in a few days with open source tools and YouTube video clips, it allows citizens to see the potential bidders, their location, solicitation and RFP information. Citizens can also see video clips of the mayor and city administrator explaining the process. "We can do in days what could take months or years traditionally," he said. "It's more competitive and open to the public."

One of Kundra's goals this year is to work with leaders to transform the district's schools by changing how curriculum is delivered and to get children excited about technology. Another goal is using more business analytics in public safety.

Kundra said part of his challenge is battling elements within city government that have a vested interest in the status quo. "Government has tended to try to solve problems by huge software development projects that are five years long, and historically these have failed," he said. "They mean employment and job security to some people, but I am changing the debate to value. My approach is to go after the core of the problem, to look at how the employees do their jobs and then look for how we can effect change."

The Consolidator
Michael Locatis
CIO, Colorado

Michael Locatis is preparing for the challenge of a lifetime -- consolidating Colorado's IT operations.

After a year of preparation and outreach to stakeholders, he thinks he's got it all covered. Locatis has plenty of experience on his side, having led the city and county of Denver through a consolidation as its CIO. The three-year effort to unite 20 disparate IT departments into a single citywide Technology Services Division won a Public Technology Institute technology solution award. "I think we were able to improve delivery of constituent services and re-engineer business processes," he said.

The fresh perspective of a private-sector approach helped him make those changes, he believes. "Of course, now that I've been in the public sector for four and a half years, I'll probably be considered a public-sector guy," said Locatis.

In fact, the 49-year-old's experience with consolidation reaches back to his days in the commercial sector. A longtime executive of Time Warner Cable, he said the company was growing so fast through mergers and acquisitions that it was a portfolio of 32 cable companies under one umbrella. As senior director of enterprise technology strategy, Locatis led the standardization of customer service delivery systems.

Of course, he realizes that consolidating state IT services may present a bigger challenge than Time Warner or Denver. "[Colorado] had a history of problems with failed and underperforming projects," he said. "It was recognized that basic things were broken and that other states were recognizing tremendous benefits from consolidation."

As in other states that have consolidated, each agency in the executive branch was making its own siloed technology decisions. "There was no enterprise architecture or procurement leverage," he said. An independent study found that the state has 40 data centers, when it probably should have two or three. "There's been no sense of shared services," Locatis said.

He believes the gradual four-phase shift to a centralized IT organization will alleviate many of these problems. Among his first moves were hiring an enterprise architecture team leader and the development of new governance structures. "We can do a much better job of vendor selection, rolling out large IT projects and prioritizing them," he said.

Having led Denver's consolidation, Locatis learned that political and employee-relationship issues must be addressed head-on. Hired in January 2007, Locatis agreed with Gov. Bill Ritter to spend time studying the state's challenges and building bipartisan support for consolidation before approaching the Legislature for approval in 2008. "We studied what other states have done and hired independent groups to do assessments," he said.

His team created a 250-page change-management plan to go along with the legislation for creating the consolidated IT organization, which was working its way through the Legislature in spring 2008. "It maps out the operational consequences and possible pitfalls," Locatis said. His management team held town hall-style meetings to get input from the state's 1,100 IT employees and put hundreds of pages of consolidation-related documents on its Web site. "We're trying to be as transparent as possible," he said, "and I think it will pay off."

Although he may be an agent of change, Locatis gives much of the credit to the governor for the state's willingness to innovate. "In a state that has not seen such change in decades, you need the executive support of someone like Gov. Ritter," he said. "If I didn't have that, I wouldn't be able to move on this so quickly, or perhaps at all."

The Consensus Builder
Laura Fucci
CIO, Clark County, Nev.

Laura Fucci admits when she left her position as CTO of MGM Mirage in December 2006 to become CIO of Clark County, Nev., she didn't realize the size of the challenge awaiting her.

The previous CIO had been gone several months, along with half of the IT management team. Forty of 120 IT positions in her centralized IT organization were empty. "I also came from an IT organization that was very centralized to one that is federated, so it requires more collaboration and a lot of herding cats," she said.

Clark County faces many challenges itself. The size of New Jersey, it's one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, adding 5,000 residents a month. Home to the Las Vegas Strip, the area sees 40 million tourists each year. The rapid development pace puts a strain on county services and the IT infrastructure that supports them.

But all those challenges played into one of Fucci's strengths: team building. The 45-year-old, who earlier in her career worked in IT for engineering firm CH2M Hill, describes herself as a consensus builder. "Some new CIOs come in and it's 'my way or the highway,'" she said, "but I come from employee-empowered and employee-owned companies. I like it when staff members bring ideas to the table."

Her first order of business was breaking down barriers, not just between central and federated IT groups, but within centralized IT itself. "I spent the first year building bridges and burning down walls," Fucci said. "I started a technology-collaboration forum between distributed and centralized IT to work on issues and standards."

Fucci believed that before focusing on how new technologies could be applied to solve some of the county's problems, she had to shore up IT service delivery. "You have to walk before you can run," she said. She believes building credibility is the most important thing for a new CIO. "You have to prove that you will indeed do what you had said you would do," said Fucci.

Using the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework, her team prioritized the top 10 actions it could take to improve customer service. "We brainstormed over what we needed to deliver and how to measure it," she said. "Since then, we have made significant improvements. We study metrics each week and get feedback from the county manager and other executives."

Fucci is also re-establishing a defunct project-management office, which she says will give her group greater visibility and help identify risks before projects go off course.

"What tends to happen is that IT gets enamored with a tool, and you end up with it sitting on a shelf without a plan for how it solves any particular problem," she said. "I am working to change that mentality so that we understand the problem before we buy the tool."

As is fitting for Las Vegas, she regularly assesses the county's willingness to experiment. Her previous employer, MGM Mirage, made extensive use of leading-edge technology and was not opposed to taking risks.

"In a county government situation, spending taxpayer dollars, there's a more conservative attitude," she said, "and I am constantly gauging the business side's willingness to try new things."

Mr. Net-Centric
David Wennergren
Deputy CIO, U.S. Department of Defense

David Wennergren's passion for the projects he undertakes is apparent to anyone who spends five minutes talking to him about IT's transformative potential.

Apparently his enthusiasm is contagious because Wennergren has led teams to success on complex projects in the U.S. Department of Defense.

As former CIO of the Department of the Navy, he led a cross-branch identity management effort he calls the largest smart card deployment in the Western hemisphere. "It sets the stage for other developments in cyber-security and digital signatures," Wennergren said.

He also pushed the Navy to take an aggressive approach to creating e-business operations to eliminate labor-intensive paper processes. The Navy's Enterprise Software Initiative approach to leveraging its buying power has since been adopted by the federal government as the General Services Administration SmartBuy program.

These accomplishments and others got Wennergren, 50, promoted in November 2006 to deputy assistant secretary of defense for information management and technology, and deputy CIO.

The challenge of working on strategic issues across all military branches appeals to Wennergren. "I always preach continuous learning; I had some learning to do myself in moving to the larger organization," said Wennergren. Because the Department of the Navy has two branches, the Navy and Marines, he had some experience working across services. "Now I've just added the Army and Air Force to the mix," he said.

Helping lead the IT operations of a big organization is more about change management than about technology itself, Wennergren said, and he is focused on making defense operations more service oriented or net-centric. In short, he wants the best of both enterprise applications and small, local-project development.

"We are changing the way we buy and build software. We have to behave like an enterprise. We don't need 50 smart card solutions or 50 collaboration tools," he said. The enterprise can be responsible for tools everyone uses, freeing up agency developers to work on tools specific to their needs. As part of a net-centric data strategy, communities of interest are forming to make data visible and accessible to each other without jettisoning their legacy systems. For instance, a maritime domain awareness community of interest -- including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, the Navy and Coast Guard -- is using a common format to share data from incompatible legacy systems.

Wennergren's influence extends beyond the Pentagon. As vice chair of the Federal CIO Council, he works on pertinent federal government issues. "None of us works in isolation," he said. "We all have cross-cutting initiatives, so it's important to come together to study the best practices." Two of his current focuses on the council are related: Web 2.0 tools and the Net generation. "The young people joining the IT work force today have different expectations about multitasking and the workplace," he said. "We have to learn how to be an employer of choice for them."

That gets back to the team-building skills and passion he brings to the job: As Wennergren sees it, in order to have an impact on such a large organization, he has to be a positive force for change and create a sense of urgency. "Many people are comfortable staying where they are because it's what they know and are good at," he said. "If I am going to get people to step out of their comfort zone, I have to be fully committed to the change, but also a good listener and have a desire to help those people unleash their potential."

The Innovator
Hardik Bhatt
CIO, Chicago

From the first day Hardik Bhatt became Chicago's CIO in February 2006, he felt comfortable pursuing innovation because Mayor Richard M. Daley blazed the trail. "The mayor has been at the forefront of innovation, from the creation of Millennium Park, to taking over the school system, to appointing a 21st Century Commission to determine how government should change to be more responsive," Bhatt said.

As soon as he became CIO, Bhatt made a proposal to Daley, not to innovate in terms of new products, but to take on complex cross-departmental challenges the city faces "whether technology is at the forefront of the solution or not," he said. He even renamed his department the Department of Innovation and Technology.

Besides traditional IT solutions, Bhatt is working on issues you might not expect a CIO to handle. One example is dealing with vacant buildings, which often become havens for gangs and drug dealers. Traditionally the issue involved nine city departments, and often the problem was passed from one to another, Bhatt explained, while citizens grew frustrated at the slow response. "We reached out to constituents and traced the issues from their calls through the system," he said. "The problem was really communication between departments. First we had to streamline the business process; then we could consider how to use technology to solve it."

Bhatt, 35, believes his mix of private-sector consulting work, a master's of business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and previous IT work for the Chicago Police Department provided a great mix of experiences to prepare him to be CIO.

"They exposed me to the subtle differences between government and the private sector," he said. It may take the city longer to buy new technology than the private sector. "But I understand we are spending taxpayers' money," said Bhatt. "For us, often the biggest return on investment is citizen benefit, and sometimes that's hard to calculate in hard dollars."

In terms of using technology to communicate with Chicago residents, Bhatt boils down the city's approach to i-government, e-government and m-government. I-government means sharing information with residents. "We have so much data," he said. "I think it is imperative to share it with citizens. We are making everything map-based, so you can see crime data, restaurant health-code violations and road closures in your neighborhood."

E-government encompasses improving city Web pages and making it easier for residents to conduct city transactions online. M-government means bringing mobility tools to employees; workers fixing potholes, for instance, can get route maps on handhelds, take photos and give immediate coordinates via GPS. It will also translate to developing systems to allow citizens to pay parking tickets or water bills via their cell phone.

Besides all the efforts to work on city business processes, Bhatt is also involved in a citywide effort to deal with an issue he knows firsthand: the digital divide. "I had such a hard time accessing technology myself in school in India in the 1980s and early 1990s," he recalled. "We had a college with 160 students and only four computers to share."

The city, he said, has started by putting $250,000 into grants to 10 nonprofit organizations to begin a process of saturating the city with digital resources to see what difference it can make.

"I have experienced the digital divide myself," Bhatt said, "so this issue has always been close to my heart."

The Smart City Architect
Steve Reneker
CIO, Riverside, Calif.

Few CIOs get the opportunity to influence their cities' growth like Steve Reneker has.

The Riverside, Calif., native took the city's top IT job in 2006, after a two-year stint working at Dell Inc., and has become an integral figure in a project called SmartRiverside.

"The goal is to make us more of a high-tech city," explained 47-year-old Reneker, who has been named SmartRiverside's executive director. The economic development aspect started as a portal to attract and retain business to the Southern California city of approximately 300,000, known as state's citrus industry birthplace. The effort grew into a task force providing high-tech companies with assistance, including tenant improvements, helping with company relocations and low-interest mortgages for employees.

Reneker is also leading an ambitious wireless broadband Internet access network project with AT&T, for which the city government is the anchor tenant. As of spring 2008, the network is 80 percent built and in testing, he said. Coinciding with the Wi-Fi project, Reneker is leading a digital-inclusion program to offer citizens refurbished PCs so they can take advantage of the free Wi-Fi access. "I thought if we're going to do this, we should make sure we're benefiting the entire community," he said. "We expect 20,000 to 25,000 households to take advantage."

Reneker, who previously served as Riverside County's CIO, said he took the city CIO post because he saw a "dream team" of talented people leading the city. "A lot of it comes down to being in the right place at the right time," he said. "We have the dynamics of an elected official base that is technology oriented as well as other leaders who understand its importance."

Besides his work on the SmartRiverside project, Reneker has made sweeping changes to how the city handles IT. He renegotiated some IT outsourcing contracts and established a project-management office and a new governance process. "Now all IT projects are prioritized by an executive technology committee," he said. "I think it's been very effective."

The city has a new data center and through virtualization, the city has reduced its number of servers from 225 to 75. Riverside is also working on a service-oriented architecture.

Priorities for the rest of 2008 include expanding the number of online services available to the public and focusing on how technology can better serve public safety officials.

Reneker is most proud of the digital inclusion project and hopes it can be replicated across the country. "In a way, it's part of a larger effort to make sure our citizens can compete with workers in Asia and Europe," he said. "We have to work to improve our standards of literacy and computer skills."

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David Raths contributing writer
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