Special Report: State CIOs Speak Out

If states are considered laboratories for democracy, then state CIOs are the lab directors of digital government.

by / September 26, 2007
State CIOs Speak Out

The job of state CIO is fascinating. No one else in government must toe the line between the old and new quite like the state CIO. As public officials, CIOs juggle a dizzying array of duties, each of which presents its own challenges. What's more, they must simultaneously work within the confines of static, old school bureaucracy and the rapidly changing technology landscape, meaning state technology leaders must be adept at adapting.

The relatively new position of state CIO isn't a job to be taken lightly. It's fraught with difficulty, complexity and limitation. State CIOs must be experts not only in technology, but in politics and management as well. Furthermore, as the private sector continues to siphon the best IT employee talent, state CIOs must find ways to continuously deliver the high-quality IT services that are in demand while dealing with fewer skilled employees and often crippling budgetary constraints.

For a look inside the compelling and ever-evolving world of the state CIO, who better to turn to than state CIOs? For this Q&A, we asked state technology leaders from around the country to talk about the state of the state CIO. Participants include: Indiana CIO Gerry Weaver, Iowa Chief Operational Officer John Gillispie, Michigan CIO Teri Takai, Mississippi CIO David Lichtliter, Delaware CIO Tom Jarrett and Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna.


How do you reflect the initiatives and policies of the governor in terms of state IT?
One of [Minnesota] Gov. Tim Pawlenty's stated priorities is "better government," which he defines as preparing state government for what he likes to call "the iPod generation." Government of the future must be open for business 24/7, with intuitive, ready access to services and information. This model is contrary to the traditional model of government that, for the last 50 years, has operated in an environment built around the assembly-line processes of the industrial era. Government service delivery mirrored what worked for corporate America - a kind of soup-to-nuts operation that included business functions and the technology that enabled them.

Now companies are focusing on their core competencies and core missions, and getting out of the areas that can better be done by experts. State governments are following suit. With the growing demand for technology-enabled, online government, agencies are saying, 'Do I want to and can I manage my IT operation and still accomplish the business of my agency?' That kind of thinking is a huge paradigm shift.

The key issue - which I know Gov. Pawlenty understands - is that cultural change on a massive scale is necessary to make the technological changes. The technology exists to put government online even as our skilled workers on the retirement track force us to work smarter with less. The greater challenge is the cultural change necessary to drive and manage a more cross-boundary, shared-service environment. But our governor is committed, we have legislative support, and we are well on the way to operationalizing their vision.


Weaver: It has not been difficult. The governor is trying to run the government as efficiently as he can. He also is focused on providing better services to the people who live in Indiana. As a result, we have developed specific plans to support each initiative. We started with the consolidation effort, and we have completed setting up a shared-services infrastructure organization. We have an enterprise architecture group focused on how we can better use the data. The state has to provide better information to our constituents, vendors and customers.


Takai: Michigan's IT strategic plan starts with the governor's initiatives, which are laid out in her Cabinet Action Plan [CAP]. The CAP identifies the key initiatives that the governor has defined and the state agency that is responsible for delivery. Many of those initiatives require IT support, or in some cases, IT leadership to accomplish them.

Let me share three examples. In the governor's initiative for better government, we play a key role through consolidation of our data centers and consolidating the number of e-mail systems, bringing down the cost of government and increasing efficiency.

We have improved service to citizens by offering more and more services online - whether it's a citizen getting a fishing license or making a campground reservation online or giving businesses the ability to obtain the permits they need online.

In the governor's initiative for homeland security, we are responsible for the Michigan Public Safety Communications System, giving first responders the ability to communicate in a crisis. In addition, our enterprise security team protects citizen data from cyber-attacks.


How do you manage the challenges that come with an aging and increasingly underskilled work force?
Jarrett: The aging state work force is a real concern. In my agency, we have determined that a full one-third of our staff is eligible for retirement within the next five to 10 years. We've been attempting to eliminate the "one-deep bench" wherever we can, and we encourage our staff to express their interest in other areas of our agency so that we can provide cross-training opportunities when possible. We provide summer internship opportunities for college students, and we've also done some shorter-term special projects with University of Delaware seniors pursuing IT degrees.

We are heavily invested in the training of our staff. Each individual employee is entitled to approximately $3,500 in training funds annually, and managers are expected to outline and include suggested training plans in each employee's performance plan. We are also a "pay-for-performance" agency, and our staff understands that achieving certifications, increasing educational levels and just simply working for excellence can be financially rewarding.


Khanna: By the year 2020, 59 percent of Minnesota government's 2,400 IT professionals will be eligible or will have already retired. That's an even higher rate than the 50 percent we see for the state's more than 32,000 employees. This is particularly problematic where there are legacy systems involved, and only those who are leaving the state have the technical knowledge to keep them running.

We have to face the challenge on three fronts - people, processes and technologies. On the people side, we are making both technical and nontechnical training available to prepare our younger workers for new technologies and a new shared-services environment. On the processes side, we are focusing on collapsing business processes and introducing ITIL [Information Technology Infrastructure Library] management processes for technical management. Finally on the technology side, we are trying to keep up with the technologies that are changing so fast, making strategic decisions on priorities and opportunities for consolidation and sharing.


Gillispie: This issue is looming in the future, and the time to act is now. Government must look for alternative ways to deliver high-quality, efficient services that customer agencies have a big say in. Government must be thinking about the new generation of workers and how to attract them to an environment that offers great challenges and results that impact society. There are lots of good things about opportunities in IT supporting government; we simply have to promote those elements to counteract the inevitable counterbalancing issues.


How much pressure exists in terms of IT consolidation, and how do you address that issue with consideration to the limited budgets many of you face?
Lichtliter: There is always pressure to meet services expectations and to reduce or better control costs. While much of the IT infrastructure in the state is shared by the large majority of agencies, the personnel and IT budgets are somewhat distributed. There are discussions with the governor's staff and Legislature about potential IT consolidation models that would better focus expenditures and leverage limited resources.


Weaver: We did it - not an issue. We could not have done it though without the support of the governor. As with most companies' major initiatives, [we] needed the sponsorship from the executive.


Khanna: As our stakeholders - legislators, citizens and the federal government - demand the kind of cost-effective and enterprisewide services that require interoperability, standardization, enterprise architecture and IT consolidation, it becomes both a strategic imperative and a value proposition.

A decentralized computing environment feeds into perpetuating the siloed processes that are both counterintuitive and counterproductive to delivering the kind of outcomes our stakeholders are looking for. IT consolidation can overcome some of the roadblocks and provide a more secure, uniform, standardized, 24/7 computing environment that supports the kind of one-stop shop our citizens expect and gives us the computing environment and the platforms we need for the future.


Jarrett: Delaware's situation is somewhat unique among state governments because our agency was established via executive order of the governor to replace the former IT agency, which had foundered in providing needed services for state agency customers.

Though not all state IT employees report to DTI [Department of Technology Information], our agency is charged with the overall responsibility of technology management. We supply network coverage for all three branches of government and 19 school districts, totaling more than 140,000 users. Our mission is to provide leadership in the selection, development and deployment of technology solutions throughout Delaware.


Has job turnover affected your ability to be an effective leader? Has it made it more difficult to undertake consolidation efforts or shore up funding from the legislature?
Takai: While we have experienced job turnover with an early retirement and reorganization into a consolidated IT organization, we have been able to develop a strong IT executive team, which has enabled us to continue to drive our initiatives. We also have been fortunate to have the support of two successive governors. The major challenge in job turnover has been with the Legislature, which has term limits. This means a continual need to educate legislators on the value of IT and the need for funding.


Lichtliter: I have been in the position for 13 plus years. Turnover in the governor's office, the state Legislature and in the major agency heads requires that the IT organization and the CIO continuously demonstrate the ability to work effectively in a changing government environment. Long-term IT initiatives require support from leadership in all areas of government.

This support only comes with strong, established relationships built on understanding and trust. It is a challenge to maintain relationships at this level with turnover in key government agencies, the governor's office, and in legislative leadership. Turnover in the central IT organization is actually reasonably low and manageable. The significant number of approaching retirements in the state IT talent pool is of greater concern.


Khanna: Like others in government and the private sector, I'm beginning to see retirements increase. Their leave-taking provides me with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to find skilled workers to replace them - I know I can't replace them one for one, and I know that I may not be able to replace skill for skill. 

However, bringing on new skills and talent allows us to reposition the technical skill sets and the cultural aspects of the organization, furthering our goal of transformation and cross-boundary collaboration. The fact that everybody at the agency level is going through the same pain actually reinforces the imperative for moving forward on consolidation at an enterprise level and fosters collaboration.


Weaver: No. The Legislature has been very supportive, especially since we have delivered significant savings.


What are some other challenges you face today as state CIO? What challenges do you feel you've overcome, and what do you think the future holds?
Gillispie: Trying to run a shared-services business in an environment of significant constraints both financially and culturally has added significantly to the day-to-day challenges. As far as accomplishments, moving governance into the hands of the business has begun to show results and more activism on their part.


Takai: The major challenge that we have overcome is the five-year journey to become a consolidated IT organization, delivering a high quality of service to our customers and citizens. The significant resistance from inside state government was difficult to overcome and still exists. 

The challenge today is around the economic environment in Michigan and the impact on state budgets. As money becomes scarce and programs are cut, it becomes more difficult for agencies to invest in technology for long-term benefit.  


Jarrett: The greatest single challenge is the protection and security of Delaware's citizens' data and our state's network. Delaware is also facing a tough budget challenge this year and resources will be far scarcer than they have been for several years. IT needs will compete with other very necessary capital projects, like new school construction.


Lichtliter: The challenge is always to do more with less. The Mississippi Legislature and the executive branch of government view the IT organization as a very credible and effective organization. The vendor community is accepting of the role of the central IT organization and trusting of its decisions and directions. These relationships are all critically important to the success of the IT organization. The future appears to bring more opportunities for shared data, systems and infrastructure between state and local government and between state and federal government. Cross-jurisdictional opportunities in the areas of law enforcement, court-case management, e-filing, e-government, GIS, statewide wireless communications, etc., are just the beginning.


Khanna: Our biggest challenge is finding creative funding solutions for long-term IT investments. The biennial political cycle does not lend itself to long-range planning or major investments over time. It is much better at addressing immediate problems and stemming crises. I am working in the off-season with a small bipartisan team of legislators to come up with a coherent plan for IT funding so we can avoid the pending crises and move the state forward toward technical stability.


How do you think your public-sector colleagues perceive the position of CIO?
Takai: Serving on the governor's Cabinet provides an opportunity for daily interaction with other Cabinet members, [and] the governor's executive staff. Through this interaction, we have developed a partnership and an understanding of the value of IT. Working to educate the Legislature about my position and role in state government has been a bigger challenge. 


Gillispie: It depends on the day.


What achievement(s) are you most proud of?
Lichtliter: I feel very good about the progress the state has made over the past decade through leveraging technology. Specifically the state, through outsourcing contracts for statewide services - wired and wireless telecommunications - has positioned itself as a long-term anchor tenant, providing lower costs to all government entities and allowing private companies the level of commitment and incentive to upgrade and build-out their technology infrastructures. This upgrade and build out of infrastructures not only meets the expanding needs of government, but also significantly improves statewide availability of broadband and other services for businesses, industry, education and citizens.  

Another notable achievement is the improving cooperative relationship between state and local government as it relates to opportunities to leverage government expenditures for technology solutions across multiple political jurisdictions.


Gillispie: Developing a technology governance model that puts the business in the position of making the tough decisions associated with technology for government.  In addition, developing a strong continuity of operations capability that agencies can take advantage of.


Takai: I am very proud of the Michigan Department of Information Technology. We've consolidated 19 different IT organizations with 1,700 employees into a single organization delivering effective, efficient services to the state agencies and citizens.

We are also fortunate to have been recognized by the Center for Digital Government for our efforts - both through the Digital States award and also the Best of the Web. These awards are a tribute to the hard work of my employees, and it is gratifying for me to see them get the recognition they deserve.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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