Michigan Tech Team Talks Change

CIO David Behen expects only minor tweaks and changes to the way things ran with John Nixon.

by / March 3, 2014
As of March 1, 2014, John Nixon began his position at the University of Utah, and CIO David Behen will continue in the CIO role, and has taken over Nixon's position as DTMB director. Jessica Mulholland

Change happens, and so it did in Michigan government. 

As was announced in mid-February, on Friday, March 1, John Nixon, now former budget director and director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB), began his position at his alma mater, the University of Utah.

While CIO David Behen will continue in the CIO role, he also has taken over Nixon's position, becoming DTMB director. And finally, Gov. Rick Snyder's Deputy Chief of Staff, John Roberts, has become Michigan's new budget director.

When Snyder took office in January 2011, the state's economy was in terrible shape. It sputtered for the past decade and ran out of gas during the recession. Though it's now showing signs of life, it has a long road to full recovery. Even before the recession, the state's unemployment rate was the worst in the country, and when the downturn struck, the economy shrank 10 percent and unemployment spiked to more than 14 percent.

So Michigan could not simply wait for a resurgent economy to return to "pre recession" levels. Even though American cars were selling again, for example, Detroit -- which had for years scraped by on borrowed money -- finally went bust. The state needed a jumpstart and some high-octane ideas.

Upon Snyder's start in office, appointed Nixon and Behen, and the three got under the hood to check things out.

"We were in a financial crisis as a state,” said Nixon. “We had a $1.5 billion structural deficit, we had $65 billion in unfunded pension liabilities …  and every accounting gimmick in the world had been played to keep the budget afloat.”

The state had instituted an early retirement plan, but did not fund the increased pension costs; there had been very little investment in physical or IT infrastructure; and the state’s $2 million rainy-day fund was only a drop in an otherwise empty bucket.

"Working with Gov. Snyder," said Nixon, "we revamped our tax structure, and went about putting the budget in structural balance, eliminated the perpetual $1.5 bilion deficit. We reduced our unfunded liabilities through reforms, and now we've got nearly $600 million in our rainy day fund."

Usually, in a downturn, infrastructure takes the first hit, said Nixon, and Michigan was no exception. So Snyder, Nixon and Behen tackled state government's IT infrastructure. While many budget directors look at IT as a cost center, said Nixon, they invested in IT "selfishly" because they knew it would assist the state in meet growing demands for services.

"If you don't have a strong IT infrastructure, you're not going to be able to do that," Nixon said. "We had $47 million going into our IT investment fund, and with the current budget, we added another $28 million to address legacy systems, to look at network infrastructure, mobile radios, and our towers. The governor, having run Gateway computers, understands IT as well." So budget and IT worked together instead of separately or at cross purposes to help the state move forward.

"We're back in the driver's seat," said Nixon, who went on to say the relationship between governor, budget director and CIO has been key to elevating technology, facilities and administrative functions. "We're hitting on all cylinders, and the economy is coming back."

As for whether the personnel changes are anything to worry about? 

"It's not that much change," Behen said, explaining that for the past three years, the team consisted of Snyder, Nixon and himself. Going forward, it will be Snyder, Roberts and himself. Behen expects only minor tweaks and changes, and Nixon says that Roberts understands the model and has been very supportive of technology, so he anticipates progress will continue.

Behen now has some of the same troubles as other CIOs around the country, such as trying to fill 50 to 75 openings with new talent. But he's upbeat about what's to come. "As CIO," he said,  "I had the best job in the U.S., and we'll be able to move forward because of the foundation that has been put in place."

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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