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Flexible Funding, Strong Partnerships Key to Ideal IT Shop

Minnesota CIO Tarek Tomes explains that if he were to build a government IT agency from the ground up, he’d start by injecting some flexibility into how technology is funded.

Minnestoa CIO Tarek Tomes
David Kidd/Government Technology
Suppose you had a clean slate to work with. How would government IT look different? How could it be improved upon? We asked state and local government technology leaders just that question.

It’s more than just a thought exercise. Their clean-slate wish lists help to paint a picture of what might be possible. From governance structures to funding mechanisms to hiring schemes, they describe a range of creative changes that could help to put IT on a stronger footing going forward.

To see all responses, click here.

If you could start a government IT shop completely from scratch, what key steps would you take? What would you change?

We know that the technology sector moves quickly. With that in mind, I would strongly advocate for flexibility when starting a new government IT organization, especially when it comes to funding.

If we thoroughly evaluate how to incorporate different funding streams into a government IT organization’s overall funding structure right at the outset, we can ultimately create the space employees need to freely dedicate time toward research and innovation.

Appropriating general funding for work that is not project-based; giving technology the same designation in law as critical infrastructure to open up the possibility of capital investment and state bonding money for IT work; and ensuring a dedicated percentage of IT funding toward modernization efforts — all are tactics that could help supplement important IT maintenance.

The need for flexibility in funding also applies to the federal funding that local government organizations receive for IT initiatives. I would want to set up any new government IT organization with strong federal partnerships, to advocate for streamlining federal funding requirements and processes.

Why would this approach be better than your present setup, or better than the current norms?

Minnesota began its state IT consolidation journey with the creation of Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) in 2011, helping the state leverage economies of scale, hone operational efficiencies and solidify statewide cybersecurity strategies. IT work for shared services is primarily funded through a bill-back model — state agencies pay a fixed rate to MNIT for the shared services that they consume.

We are funded to maintain and secure existing services, but it can be challenging to recover the cost of new or innovative services. Additional funding models might help improve the efficiency of state government by focusing resources on providing services, rather than billing for interagency work.

Codifying technology services as critical infrastructure (effectively treating IT the same way we treat roads and bridges), for example, would enable us to add bonding funding opportunities to our current model.

The Minnesota Legislature has put forth a few bills in the past few years to classify cybersecurity as critical infrastructure, but if this were expanded to include technology services such as maps and modernization, there would be opportunities to ensure that services are always available and meet the needs of our constituents.

What challenges would this new model encounter, and how could these be overcome? What would it take to make this real?

I’m proud to say that, since 2011, Minnesota IT Services has become an organization that strives to support workforce flexibility, encourages rapid innovation and promotes a state government culture that embraces change.

Setting up new funding models for our established state agency would be a significant legislative challenge. Taking on that challenge would require trust. When we focus on flexibility rather than rigid funding models, we need to trust that our government will provide exceptional technology solutions, along with an account of how those solutions came to be.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved that technology can change outcomes for people, particularly in the midst of a crisis. Technology allows us to reimagine service delivery and gain new insights that help us reduce systemic biases that individuals or manual processes may hold, and it creates the ability to effectively measure our success. Our future requires broad recognition that digital capabilities can meet the needs — and ultimately the expectations — of Minnesotans.

Tarek Tomes has served as CIO and commissioner of Minnesota IT Services since April 2019. He was previously CIO and chief innovation officer for the city of St. Paul, among other private- and public-sector roles.