Florida House Committee Moves Forward with Bill to Terminate the State IT Agency

The fate of the Agency for State Technology, the latest iteration of Florida’s enterprise IT office, should be known within the coming weeks.

Despite the warnings of higher costs and disjointed operations from prominent technology experts, the Florida House Appropriations Committee passed legislation on April 5 to terminate the Agency for State Technology (AST). The decision is the latest in a lengthy history of instability for the state’s technology authority, which has been reworked or eliminated several times in recent years.

Last week, the House Government Operations and Technology Appropriations subcommittee nearly unanimously pushed through HB 5301, which calls for the removal of AST’s management authority over the state’s data center, enables agencies to move out of the state data center at-will while largely removing enterprise rulemaking authority and rebranding the agency.   

And while the latest committee action is far from the final say on the matter, it signals what state technology officials describe as too much faith in cloud technology and too little understanding about the existing infrastructure challenges.

Immediately following the AST portion of the hearing, Interim CIO Eric Larson reiterated his concerns about the proposal and the fracturing of the enterprise technology agency to Government Technology

He also called out the assertions, like one made by the bill’s author, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-District 35, during the hearing regarding ASTs overuse of no-bid contract as a damaging mischaracterization of agency practice. 

“[Ingoglia’s] characterization that 85 percent of the spend within the agency was done without requiring bids is essentially saying that we are big users of state term contracts, as opposed to it being a characterization that we are somehow doing something nefarious with our procurements,” Larson said.

In line with the statements made March 28, Ingoglia pointed to the agency as a source of ballooning costs and maintained that the organization was trying to support an unsustainable business model. 

Though Larson was clearly frustrated by the assertions made during recent hearings, he said the task ahead comes down to undoing the damage done by the misinformation. “Statements like 'we exercise outside of our authority'; that requires some substantiation, which, of course, there is no basis for. To say that the Legislature provided us funding to procure disaster recovery service, yet they characterized us as building disaster recovery, although all of it was contracted through state term contracts — probably in the pile of no-bid that he mentioned — and weren’t procured, they were rented. ...”

“[The statements were] designed to be short little sound bites for people without clarity on the topic to follow the pack.”

What’s more, Larson said, is what can only be described as a lack of understanding of cloud infrastructure partially based on successful technology industry marketing campaigns. Because of the oversimplified nature of cloud marketing, lawmakers seem to be of the mind that cloud computing can immediately fix all of the state’s technology infrastructure woes, the interim CIO explained.

Where technologists may see an opportunity for a hybrid solution, those in the public space often see an opportunity for what Larson said is perceived as a “magic bullet,” which is almost never as easy to implement as it might seem.

“Their end game appears to be everything should have a contract and the cloud is magical and saves them money, even though they aren’t addressing the cost for the infrastructure that is running the services now,” he said. “Unfortunately they are viewing cloud as a get-rich-quick scheme. They are viewing cloud as a way to get out from underneath all the complications and we just toss somebody the keys, but the reality is that ... no state is completely in the cloud.”

If ultimately successful, the bill would also allow agencies to complete their own cost-benefit analyses to determine whether they could save money by abandoning their stake in the state data center. In doing so, each agency to pull the plug would raise the costs for the remaining agencies. Though each agency might see one-off savings, the state overall would see increasing costs, Larson said.

As it stands, the acting CIO said agencies were never without the ability to pick their own cloud solutions and that AST lacks the authority to prevent such a move.

But even the warnings of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, in the form of a letter to Larson March 27, didn’t dissuade the committee from passing the bill to the House for consideration. During his closing comments, Ingoglia brushed off the advice about supporting unified enterprise IT, saying the state pays for a membership to the organization.

In recent years, the state has seen significant progress in the implementation of its IT program. According to the Center for Digital Government (CDG)*, Florida was ranked as the most improved state in the 2016 Digital States Survey, bringing its overall IT rating up from a D in 2012 to a B+ in 2016.

“In our view, the improvement in Florida’s enterprise use of technology closely aligns with, and can be attributed in large part to the creation and maturation of the Agency for State Technology and the appointment of an enterprise chief information officer with broad authority,” CDG Executive Director Todd Sander said. “It will be unfortunate if Florida dismantles their successful organizational structure, that closely aligns with the structure of top-performing states across the nation, in favor of a highly federated structure that appears to be disproportionally focused on accommodating a single infrastructure option.”

The situation is perhaps best described by the former CIO of the disbanded Agency for Enterprise Information Technology (AEIT), David Taylor, who aptly described it as “politics.” During Taylor’s tenure as the state CIO, Gov. Rick Scott ultimately defunded the agency with a budget line-item veto to avoid a similar legislative attack from completely stripping the agency of any real authority.

Aside from some of the finer details, he sees it as a very similar set of circumstances to what he lived through in 2012. “For some reason IT has always been a target because of the interests of certain individuals, best I’ve been able to figure it out. Because in other areas we don’t appear quite as dysfunctional ... as far as enterprise IT,” said Taylor. “It seems to be very difficult to give that agency more than a few years to accomplish things. Even then, every agency has been really hamstrung, we have never had a very strong centralized IT organization — even though there is plenty of evidence and data to show that is really a good model to lower costs and gain efficiencies.” 

In the negotiations that followed the dissolution of AEIT, AST was created, and as Taylor sees it, has done well in meeting the overall charge of the agency.

“[AST] was a great step forward and seemed to be running well by anybody’s accounts,” Taylor said. “Now there is another legislative move by the same branch, the House, to basically do what they failed to do with my agency, to strip it of its power and weaken it to the point of where essentially the Legislature could drive the IT process through a process of budget management and make it a policy-only agency.”

Despite the forward momentum, there is still a chance the House will vote down or rework the legislation to more amenable middle ground. Unlike previous attempts to rework the technology agency, the lack of an accompanying Senate bill means the decision will fall solely to the Florida House of Representatives. 

Officials expect to see more activity within the coming weeks.

Comment on the bill was unavailable from the governor's office as of press time April 5.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.