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Alabama Acting CIO Jim Purcell Is a Man on a Mission for Smarter State IT

Purcell has a lot on his plate — and he wasn’t expecting any of it.

Jim Purcell wasn’t expecting a call from Alabama’s new governor, Kay Ivey, and he certainly wasn’t expecting her to ask him to head up the Office of Information Technology (OIT) — but that’s exactly what happened last week.

Following a rocky patch in Alabama politics, which included a personal scandal terminating with former Gov. Robert Bentley's resignation, Ivey — Bentley’s former lieutenant — stepped in to stabilize the executive branch and make a few administrative changes. Among those changes was the appointment of Purcell as the OIT acting secretary. Purcell accepted, picking up where former Secretary Joanne Hale left off.

But the job isn’t just a promotion; there is some very real work to be done to make the agency future-ready. Purcell, a man who will happily tell you he is up to the challenge, is contending with not only the restructuring of his agency, but with all the other things CIOs normally must deal with as well.

An Agency on Its Own

In May, Ivey signed Senate Bill 219 into law, clearing the way for OIT to officially separate from the state’s Department of Finance. What may seem simple at first glance is much more complicated, Purcell explained, and will require reconciling assets, staff and contracts. He calls it a “big, hairy monster.”

“It’s a pretty complicated minutiae problem. I am fully on board with that continuing, and the sooner we can identify it the better, and the finance director is still very much on board,” he said. “It’s kind of like merging two companies, where one acquires the other one, it’s a lot of work that goes on under the covers.”

Though both agencies and their respective leaders were on board with the change, and had set it into motion with an interagency agreement, it took the governor’s signature to seal the deal in May. 

With other portions of the act set to go live in October 2017, the final sign-off on the separation has no deadline because state officials want the gargantuan task done correctly, not necessarily quickly. 

Cleaning House and Improving from Within

Even a brief conversation with Purcell is enough to show that his sights are set on moving the agency forward and preparing it for the future, not just maintaining the status quo. As an agency insider, who formerly served in the chief operations officer (COO) role, he said the governor choosing the new secretary from within the OIT was a welcome choice for an agency with a plan.

Alabama Acting CIO Jim Purcell is not a “technology for technology’s sake” kind of guy. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Office of Information Technology.

Like Hale before him, Purcell hopes to cement OIT’s internal operations and ingrain what he calls “cultural” core throughout the service-based agency’s ranks. 

“Trying to get the mass of long-term employees to think more customer service and service-based is a huge cultural undertaking, and we can draw it on paper and we can put procedures out there, but until it is in our very fiber, it’s yet to be seen if I can be successful or not,” he said.

A step in the right direction is improving the tools that state agencies have at their fingertips — like the phones they use, for example. And Purcell is not a “technology for technology’s sake” kind of guy; he means it when he says the state’s phone system is out of date and costing big money. 

Under a large-scale VoIP project, about to be kicked off with industry partner Cisco, the state stands to save millions of dollars a year over the analog systems it currently operates on. “We’re really within weeks of kicking that project off, and very conservatively, we’re looking at probably a 50 percent savings — a $12 million range over current state,” he said. “It’s a have-to-do and it’s a big win for the agency.”

New phones aside, the federated model of Alabama IT does create some private-sector competition for OIT in the other aspects of the technology environment, but Purcell, a former private-sector man himself, sees it as an opportunity for his agency to up the ante and try harder to incent prospective agency customers.

“We’re competing with outside providers, but really with a goal of being not only the best choice from a price point, but also the best choice from a service point of view in that federated model,” he said. “How do you incent people to do better if they have to? We’d much rather use the carrot approach than the stick approach.”

Much Ado About Workforce

By his count, nearly three-quarters of his staff could retire at any given moment. Anecdotes about state IT staffing fly around all the time, but this isn’t a figure Purcell uses flippantly — he means it, and is audibly nervous about what the loss of valuable staff could mean for state IT.  

What’s more, he said, is that very little has been done to prepare for recruiting their replacements. 

“I would guess that 70 percent of my staff could drop their retirement papers any day they wanted to … nothing has been done to prime the pump and to go recruit young people and bring in diversity or talent and diversity of thought,” he said.

To beat the stereotype of the state government hiring debacle, the acting CIO said he knows it’s not something that OIT can do alone; it’s going to take partnerships with higher education, scholarships and incentivizing millennials to give government work a try.

But part of the problem is, well, government’s glacial pace when it comes to changing. The state IT agency has been stuck in the “mainframe era” with regard to how it thinks about the roles of its personnel, data processing clerks, etc. To fix it, OIT is having to “realign” these roles and responsibilities, not just to make sense of what staff is up to, but also to where it comes to pay.

“The first swipe at this is align the people we have and fix the pay scale to, as best we can, where it aligns with industry,” he said. “That will help retain talent, but does nothing really to fix the huge problem we have in recruiting.”

What’s Next for Alabama?

When asked about the future, Purcell has no delusions about his timetable. Ivey’s term ends in 16 months, and a lot of other political factors could determine his immediate future, but even so, he remains focused on the tasks at hand. 

As he tells it, the next few months will be spent not only shoring up the state’s cybersecurity and internal processes, but also in building better relationships with the customer agencies that OIT serves. When asked whether leadership fully understands the evolving role of IT in government, he answered in the affirmative, but said there is work to be done when it comes to some of the agency heads.

Rather than blaming a cost-conscious agency for not immediately accepting the potential of new technology, Purcell said it’s up to OIT to prove the value of what it supplies.

“They don’t necessarily understand how technology can help them over hiring more doctors or social workers, more feet on the ground doing their stuff," he said. "So, we’ve got to do a better job in showing them the value and how we can multiply people’s efforts through automation and technology.”

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