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Conversation with a CIO: Florida's Jason Allison Discusses Building on the Past and Moving the State Forward

Allison has set his sights on building lasting relationships with state agencies and meeting the tight deadlines posed by key infrastructure initiatives.

In this series, Government Technology is looking for insights from IT decision-makers on the opportunities and issues facing their respective jurisdictions. Each week, our staff aims to catch up with a state or local government CIO to discuss trending topics, particular pain points and initiatives geared to improve public-sector IT.

This week, we talked with Jason Allison, CIO of the Florida Agency for State Technology (AST). He was appointed
in December 2014 by Gov. Rick Scott to the lead the state’s third iteration of its technology agency. Since taking the helm, Allison has set his sights on building lasting relationships with other state agencies and meeting the tight deadlines posed by key infrastructure initiatives.

Tell us about some of the key initiatives AST is taking on and your other priorities this year.

The Agency for State Technology really does five core things. We work with the Florida Department of Management Services, one of our sister agencies, on IT procurement. So, that’s an area we are looking to, I wouldn’t say reform, but work on and make a little more dynamic, and make it so that IT procurement works as fast as technology expands and grows. We're also working on strategic planning; that is one of our core missions throughout the enterprise and project assurance on existing technology projects. Any projects $10 million or more, we have an oversight role in shepherding that through the process and making sure the state is on track with your typical triple constraints. 
Then, the last two [functions] are the operational management of the state data centers. We have two physical locations, and we are in the process of moving one data center out of its physical location and into a state-owned location. That has to be done no later than June 30. This was something initially we had hoped to do over a series of years, and based on this last session, we got a very condensed time frame. It’s full speed ahead, and everybody’s priority is to have this move go ahead as smoothly as possible with the least amount of down time. Then of course, like everybody else, security, security, security.
Those are the big things we’ve got going on, but obviously, this data center move, keeping the lights on at the same time and focusing on security are probably the biggest areas at the moment.
Senate Bill 624 was recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott. What exactly does this new law do for Florida IT?
Basically it sought to protect the detailed information related to data breaches and such that, basically, the average citizen would have no use for — things like server names and IP addresses. Releasing that information, we couldn’t see the necessity. When pulled together, like people familiar with social engineering, where you pick up bits and pieces [of information], it’s the sum of the parts together that do the damage. By releasing that information, we couldn’t necessarily see the public need and we didn’t think that outweighed the safety of the citizenry. … That was essentially the genesis of the bill, and I think it’s a good bill for Florida.
It’s not meant to be secretive. It’s OK to say, "Hey, X, Y and Z were compromised." It’s the details of this is how it happened, this is why it happened. Florida is by far one of the most, if not the most, transparent state.
With the IT agency’s relative instability over the last decade, how has that changed your role and how is AST moving forward as an agency? 
It probably has its pros and cons, candidly. A pro of the instability is that there is a real appetite for stability and some enterprise organization to come in and set some tone and set some leadership. The downside is, and I wouldn’t even call it a downside, it’s very important for us to go down and immediately establish our credibility. I was a member of the prior organization, the Agency for Enterprise Information Technology, and was in state government at the time when our State Technology Office was around and became defunded. I think it was very important with the people we hired and everyone we talked to that we were there to be resources, not regulatory. We’ve really tried to promote and develop a culture of enabling business value. If we are not sitting around the table helping our customers succeed, we are not doing our job.
I think the timing was very right for this third iteration. The third time is the charm.    

In terms of state agencies and their willingness to embrace AST for the long haul, what are you seeing?
I don’t know what they are thinking; I only know what I have seen, and there has been absolutely zero hesitation from a partnership standpoint. That probably stems from a couple of different things. One, we’ve got great executive leadership that is very supportive of our organization, and it’s abundantly clear they want our organization to play a large role in decision-making and collaboration. Two, honestly, while Florida is a big state, the IT community up here in Tallahassee, where all of the headquarters are, is kind of a close-knit group. We’ve got a very good staff who work well with others, and I think we are over-communicative and transparent about exactly where we are coming from. The candidness that we carry ourselves with, I think goes a long way.
We have monthly meetings with the CIO community where we talk about exactly what we are doing … kind of closed-door where we can talk very openly about the things we might have questions and concerns about. … It’s a very collaborative environment.
Initially there might have been some [reluctance to partner], but two years into it I feel like we’ve had a string of successes.
In terms of the state leadership, is technology seen as a top-tier priority within Florida government or is there still a disconnect between its importance and how officials view it?
I think it is certainly a priority, and maybe it’s the way we are approaching it, but I think what has helped us the most is the exposure to [technology] and certainly the demystification of it. We’ve gone a long way to do that. I see IT as a business enabler. In and of itself, it really serves no purpose; it’s there to be more responsive to our citizenry and make sure our back-office operations run more efficiently and accurately. When I sit down and listen to the governor’s priorities, or the various agency entities and what they are hoping to achieve and what their pain points are, my team sitting down with them and talking about how we can get them closer to where they need to be through technology, has been huge — absolutely huge.
I wouldn’t say that it is any more or less important, but I think there is a much better understanding of its role and the value it plays in getting things done. We get them coming to us with the what, not the how, which used to be the old way. … That’s been a huge paradigm shift that really speaks volumes to our ability to build trust in that area.   

In terms of state legislation, is there anything you would like to see as a part of the conversation?
It would be great to have legislation around data management. State agencies in Florida have millions and millions of records that need to be properly catalogued. … Being able to set those standards for these processes would be extremely beneficial. We have a treasure trove of information. Everyone beats this drum, but there is never a shortage of ways that we can protect the enterprise from a security standpoint. We are never going to have enough money to do it all, but anytime that we can have more funds or more awareness in that arena, it’s going to be better for the state of Florida.
Eyragon Eidam is the managing editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the daily news editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.