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Strong Project, Change Management Are Essential to Good IT

With the understanding that IT people already know how to do technology right, Cabarrus County, N.C., CIO Todd Shanley says dedicated project management and analysis staff would be central to building his ideal IT agency.

Cabarrus County NC CIO Todd Shanley
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?

In government IT, we already have the tech part down really well. If I was starting from scratch, I would focus on the ancillary pieces, the things that, as a technology agency, you don’t really realize at first that you need.

I’m thinking especially of project management: I would have a team dedicated to project management.

We have business analysts now, but they’re kind of intermingled. I would create a separate project management division. I’ve seen a few counties that have that type of infrastructure now, and it’s something I would definitely put in place.

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

First, it would support continuity and communication with our customers. Right now we struggle with that. The tech people geek out, they get excited about the technology and run really fast, but they may forget to go through the change management process.

To effectively make changes, we need to get people on board earlier. Rather than just jumping off — Hey, this is really cool, bright and shiny! — we could slow down and explain why we are making the change. What’s the actual effect of making this change? Maybe that’s not an IT role, but most often today it falls on us to make that happen, and when we don’t do it well, it really shows.

A project management team would also have a kind of leadership role. My team has the vision and the goals that we set for our projects. Project management would help to make sure that those are followed throughout, as the technologies are launched, and they could even do the follow-up on the back end to make sure that the projects are running smoothly once they’ve been implemented.

IT is more than just calling Best Buy or ordering something from Amazon. There are all of these pieces that people fail to recognize — there are a lot of moving parts to a technology project. I think about the public safety projects that I managed earlier in my career. If I had had a project manager that worked with me on those projects, rather than me trying to be the technical resource and the project manager, those projects would have been much more successful because there was so much more thought and planning behind what we were doing.

Right now, we have individual groups that are in charge of their independent technologies, and we are doing a much better job of working together. But when I roll back the clock five or six years, everybody was just heads down, focused on their piece of the technology. A project manager could pull things together, and they could pull people together, making sure everyone is getting notified of changes in a timely way and managing their expectations.

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

Project management is a soft skill, and people may not want to burn capital to set up an entire group around soft skills. They may not understand the benefit of having that; it’s often something that people realize only in hindsight.

Part of it is also just about scale. We’re just shy of 40 people now on our IT staff, just getting to the scale where this is feasible. If you have 15 people, it’s hard to invest in this when you have gaps in your cybersecurity program or your network administration. It’s hard for a small to medium-sized organization to do this.

I look at Arlington County, Va., where they have an entire division set up to do this. They’ve reached that stage in their development, in their planning. There is a maturity model that comes into play in order to make this happen.

Todd Shanley has worked for Cabarrus County, N.C., IT since 1996, serving as CIO since 2019.
Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.
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