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North Dakota's IT Unification Effort Is No Easy Task

State CIO Shawn Riley believes plans to unify the state's disparate IT systems will go ahead, but first he has to convince the legislature the initiative will work.

by / June 20, 2018

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum last year appointed Mayo Clinic CIO Shawn Riley as the state's head technologist, with his marching orders to lead the IT transformation of the state agencies.

Burgum’s plans call for a unification of shared services and a move to cloud computing as part of his reinventing government initiative — one of five strategic initiatives Burgum has for the state. 

The goal of the unification effort is to reduce 17 cabinet agency IT departments into a new, consolidated organization, which will achieve the highest level of value for the dollars spent while empowering North Dakota citizens by providing them with trusted information, according to Riley.

The unification effort is expected to yield a 15 to 20 percent improvement in efficiencies as IT redundancies are reduced, Riley explained. For example, seven IT management systems will be reduced to one. 

Meanwhile, IT staff with redundant responsibilities could be redeployed to work on needed projects, such as new IT systems that will serve citizens. Using a hypothetical example, Riley pointed to one potential project in which an unemployed single mother could avoid standing in line at the unemployment office and instead go online to a state website where she enters in her information to apply for unemployment benefits. The website automatically culls information about the mother across a number of government agencies and integrates it into a profile that automatically offers up relevant services, such as free and reduced lunches for her school-age children, reduced heating bills and job services organizations.

As part of the unification plan, the new organization will have a new name and three new executive roles: chief data officer, chief technology officer and chief reinvention officer. These positions are targeted to be filled by the end of July. The unification process and planning began in July of last year and will await final approval in the 2019 legislative session.

Moving the executive branch to the cloud is another big initiative, Riley said, along with mobility, artificial intelligence and machine learning as key projects. 

Currently the vast majority of state systems are on premises, rather than in a hosted environment in the cloud, according to Riley. Every agency has its own set of requirements that will affect whether the data can reside in a public cloud, such as Amazon Web Services, or require to reside in a private cloud that is run by the government.

“Half of our data centers can be moved to the cloud in a matter of months and the other half will take years,” Riley observed.

The concerns around a movement to the cloud include the upfront costs to get there, Riley said. But once the expenditures are made, the storage costs will yield savings, he added. 

Legislators Express Concerns

Riley will address the state’s Information Technology Committee meeting on June 26, where he will field questions from legislators about plans to unify IT operations and beef up the state’s cloud computing efforts.

The Information Technology Committee, one of several committees overseen by the state’s North Dakota Legislative Management, has asked the state CIO to address five issues, which were listed in its April 30 letter, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Government Technology:

  • A cost-benefit analysis of moving state systems to the cloud.
  • A list of state applications using cloud-based services and when those applicataions were transitioned to the cloud.
  • An inventory list of state systems and applications that identify which ones can be moved to the cloud and which can be rewritten to move to the cloud.
  • Projected costs of operating in the cloud verses using on-premises technologies.
  • Current funding sources for all information technology employees who will be part of the unification plan.

In February, the North Dakota Legislative Management sent a letter to the CIO expressing concern they were not adequately informed about details relating to the implementation of the shared services unification effort and cloud computing initiative and its impact on state agencies’ service delivery, costs and personnel.

Although the letter asked Riley to delay further implementation efforts until the appropriate legislative committees could receive information on the IT Department’s plans and anticipated changes, Riley was able to quickly meet with them to address some of their concerns and was given the green light to proceed with his plans, he said. The North Dakota Legislative Management thanked him for his cooperation in a follow-up letter sent in March.

In addition to the upcoming June update, Riley will also be providing another update at the Information Technology Committee’s regularly scheduled quarterly meeting in September before the legislature resumes in January, according to Rep. Corey Mock, chairman of the Information Technology Committee.

Employee Numbers at Core of Unification Issue

The North Dakota Legislative Management oversees not only Mock’s committee but also has responsibilities relating to the state’s budget. The committees want to ensure that the IT unification efforts will not divert special funds like federal dollars or grant monies away from various state agencies as IT full-time employees (FTEs) are assigned to the new organization and potentially jeopardize these continued funding sources or require the agencies to pay back the money, Mock explained.

“With the unification proposal, the biggest hold up is if, hypothetically, there are 600 FTEs and it goes does down to 400 FTEs to bring under one agency, we as a legislature have to make a decision," said Mock. "It could disrupt the unification process if the legislature (once it reconvenes) says it does not want all the FTEs under one IT agency."

Mock doesn’t want to spend time on something that the legislature may not allow to be implemented, so the committees are working with Riley to have all the questions answered now that he may possibly face when he testifies before the appropriations committees for the House and Senate when they return in January. The IT and budget committees represent 54 of the 141 legislators, of which a simple majority vote is needed to have a unification plan approved, Mock says.

Mock noted legislators are also concerned that the state may enter into a cloud contract at a teaser rate, but after surrendering ownership of their own data storage hardware that the cloud provider will jack up the rates.

Odds of Legislative Approval

Riley believes the odds are good the state legislature will approve unification when they convene during the 2019 session. He added the legislature is full of very intelligent people who want to do right for the state of Dakota and that he is more than happy to address any questions they have.

Mock says while his gut tells him that the legislature will likely support and embrace a move to the cloud, their acceptance of unification is harder to predict. 

He noted that while legislature will look at the money that can be saved from unification, if it also leads to a drop in service, such as help desk support, then it may create a harder sell.

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Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff Writer

Dawn Kawamoto is a former staff writer for Government Technology.

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