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Rising to the Challenge: How 3 Public CIOs Are Confronting Major Mandates

Structural upheavals and a budget reality that threatened a major connectivity initiative aren’t stopping the work of these state and local government CIOs.

You can bet Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt isn’t bored. In January Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an executive order that will consolidate the state’s IT offices into a new Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT). That’s 1,700 employees and an $800 million annual budget for IT services to be controlled by a single operating body (with input from key agencies on how best to spend the IT dollars, including alternate sources for funding, such as federal grant money, according to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget). Rauner’s State of the State speech declared this a necessary move, calling the state “a model of inefficiency and ineffectiveness,” a statement supported by Illinois’ ranking as the third biggest IT spender paired with low marks on digital service delivery. Look no further than the most recent Digital States Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government, in which Illinois earned a C+.

In a sense this is a second try at consolidation, following on a 2003 legislative directive to merge IT into the Central Management Services office. That effort petered out with just 60 percent of infrastructure consolidated over three years, including data centers, end-user computing and help desk services. “Either they pushed back or the effort just ran out of steam,” Bhatt said of the lackluster efforts from the previous try at consolidation.

Infrastructure is a nice start, but with 2,700 apps still running — many redundant — along with 420 ERP systems, the results were far from spectacular.

Now that DoIT will have significant control of the state’s IT operations and budget, it promises to take steps that include reduction of software redundancy. Why have 11 agencies running 11 different apps to execute the same function? “We are essentially spending 11 times more than what we need,” Bhatt said.

Beyond the technical elements, Bhatt has given a lot of thought to his own role. What’s the state CIO supposed to do in a project that must embrace so many agency IT leaders? “They are the 51 percent partner and I am the 49 percent partner,” he has decided. “They will be deciding what should be done, and I will be giving it to them.”

To this end, the DoIT effort is being supported by a council made up of all agency CIOs, divided into a dozen working groups of three to seven members, with each group responsible for functional elements, things like enterprise strategy for mobile, cloud, cybersecurity and agile development. The idea right now is for the working groups to identify and address the low-hanging fruit, such as mobile apps for citizens and data analytics for better decision-making.

Most employees will remain embedded in their agencies as subject-matter experts, while technically attached to DoIT on the org chart. It’s a model that James Joseph and other agency heads are supporting. As director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Joseph can envision a scenario in which his IT team comes up short two or three workers due to attrition or hiring issues. “Now if I have any shortages, there will be cross-training among all the agencies at the DoIT level, so there will be people there who can come in and fill the hole,” he said.

The issues that Illinois is tackling are not unique. Last November, NASCIO ranked IT consolidation, enterprise strategies and cost controls among its top 10 list of priorities for 2016.

Illinois’ state agency CIOs laud the changes, with the hope that the new structure likely will mean a new role for the top information officers. “Now you are not on the boat alone, trying to be the captain of the ship on your own,” said Keith Schoonover, CIO for the Department of Children and Family Services. “I look at it as me becoming part of a strategic team, combined with my driving the implementation of that strategy within my department.”

Bhatt confirms this interpretation, this back-and-forth process between agency technology chiefs and his own emerging department. For DoIT to succeed, there will need to be a collaborative process that balances strategic development with the ability to deliver. “My job is to understand the stresses that a department is under and to bring that to the strategic table where I can be helping to drive initiatives within a larger strategy,” he said.

At the agency level, CIOs naturally would have some concern about whether the DoIT staff will be ready to help follow through with those proposed initiatives. The last thing they want is a good plan with no follow-through.

To this end, “the biggest thing is the service-level agreements” between DoIT and the agencies, Joseph said. “They are making a commitment to us that if we need a report run within so many hours, they are going to make that happen. With those agreements we know we will be able to keep our customer service needs at the forefront.”

In a larger sense, the role of the agency CIO is as much about the big picture as it is about the details of implementation. In the midst of a major overhaul or significant IT undertaking, the lead technologist needs to be plugged into business needs as much as technological possibilities.

“Even when the lines on the org chart change, the job of the CIO still remains one of being the interface between business and technology,” said Greg Wass, who left his position as CIO of Cook County, Ill., to become an adviser to the state on IT issues, as well as a senior adviser at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“What’s important is that the vision really be clear and that the executive leadership be clear,” he said. “Then it is up to the CIO to embrace the change. In technology the only thing that’s constant is change, so as a CIO you had better be prepared for the idea that there will always be improvements, there will always be innovations.”

One of those innovations will be to reorganize IT along functional rather than departmental lines. The state has half a dozen verticals including transportation, education and the like. Bhatt wants to build an IT structure that better organizes the technology supporting those verticals in order to fulfill the customer’s needs.

“How do we make sure that we are thinking from the customer’s perspective? Someone who is getting services from the state doesn’t think of a particular agency or bureau, they just want to think about the services that they need,” he said. Deloitte is on contract to help with best practices in developing this plan, slated to be completed by mid-2016.

How can Bhatt feel sure that he’ll hit that timeline mark? It’s because the DoIT initiative is being run along private-sector lines, he said, especially when it comes to long-range planning — or, in this case, short-range.

Since Feb. 1, the project has run on 75-day cycles, with the first target being exploratory in nature: an effort to launch a center of excellence and an initial foray to explore the Internet of Things. The plan is to assess the situation more thoroughly before launching into specific money-saving initiatives. Why 75 days? “I come from business and we think in terms of quarters,” said Bhatt, who spent five years as Cisco’s Internet of Everything expert.

When large public-sector projects sprawl and fizzle, “the reason this happens is because these projects are not broken into milestones,” he said. Even in government, efficient planning is possible: A governor who is elected in November takes office in mid-January. “If they can get ready to run the state in 75 days, we should be able to reach a specific milestone in 75 days.”

There’s an added bonus on the workforce front. If DoIT can hit its milestones, Bhatt said, Illinois could see a big lift in IT recruiting — the perennial issue of technology management. “Now they can take a sense of pride in their work,” he said. “We want to build an IT department where everybody wants to come and work.”

Observers give the state’s IT reorganization a tentative thumb’s up. “It’s absolutely the right direction to take the organization. … There will be long-term benefits to the people of Illinois,” Wass said. “Data sharing across agencies should be much easier when the people who manage the data are working together in one organization. And better data sharing should lead to better apps and better service.”

In financial terms, Wyoming CIO Flint Waters got in just under the gun. Faced with Gov. Matt Mead’s proposal to roll out broadband for all schools and government offices, he got the $15.8 million job completed in six months, just before the falling price of oil took a bite out of the state budget. Buying, rather than building, helped the project to scoot in under the wire.

Wyoming’s $16 million multi-vendor broadband initiative avoided budget impacts from the falling price of oil by buying rather than building, according to CIO Flint Waters.“We didn’t build any fiber,” he said. “We partnered with all the fiber providers in the state, and we had all the contracts in place before the funding was even released, so we could go ahead as soon as we got the money.”

Those providers had broadband in place that would cover 48 school districts (that’s more than 400 individual locations) and more than 400 state sites. Waters’ new managed service agreements have been able to boost Internet speeds in the schools from 5 kilobits up to 200 kilobits per student.

The new strategy broadened competition, taking a delivery system that had belonged to a single vendor and opening it to every provider in the state. Providers could place competitive bids since each had its own consolidated fiber presence, thus allowing Waters to decentralize (and better safeguard) a system whose networks have previously all terminated in Cheyenne. Now all termination points are local.

The choice to widen the provider field came from necessity. In response to the state’s original RFP, “no single vendor came forward with a solution,” Waters said. “No one came through with all the things I felt the state needed.”

The new broadband availability came with a price, as the project drew some $1.3 million away from other state IT efforts, including an initiative to deliver greater cybersecurity.

Still, there may be direct ROI derived from the new bandwidth. Data centers across the state get free access to the backbone, with Waters calling that a win-win. The state attracts data centers, and the centers in turn are poised to deliver database services, file services and other commercial programs to state offices. “If their model is selling services, this is perfect for them,” he said.

Seattle IT planners are on a mission to consolidate most of the city’s technology operations. The new Information Technology Department launched in April and should be fully operational by the end of 2018.

“We want data-driven, efficient government. We want to be focused on serving the people, without being tied to these silo structures,” said Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller.

Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller
Change management is the most challenging part of Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller’s task of centralizing 650 of the city’s 750 IT systems.The new department represents the next iteration in a process begun in the late 1990s, with the creation of a central body to manage common services and maintain infrastructure. While a strong start, this effort still left 750 IT professionals in 19 departments largely on their own in the development of function-specific apps. That made it hard to generate efficiency: Something as relatively simple as an upgrade to Microsoft Office 365 for email took three years, when it should have taken six months, Mattmiller said.

Now, the plan is to centralize 650 out of 750 systems in the city’s executive branch. For departmental IT managers, this will mean migrating to the role of strategist, as they step back from day-to-day tasks and take on the broader role of business relationship manager.

As the IT department comes together, Mattmiller’s efforts will be devoted largely to planning. In his role as top strategist, he will lead conversations throughout the city to bring leadership on board with changes occurring within IT. At the same time, Mattmiller will lead the integration of departmental infrastructure teams to consolidate networking, storage and compute functions. A four-month process will develop recommendations and launch an early pilot to develop shared service desk functions.

It helps that the city is already three years into consolidating its data center. The standardization of hardware and networking has proven a good practice run, including the creation of a virtual private cloud and software-defined networking.

For the CIO, such technical changes are important. Even more important, though, is the ability to lead the IT organizations through the move to this new business model. “Change management is probably the most challenging aspect of all of this,” Mattmiller said.