State CIOs discuss how the election of a new governor can affect IT projects and what can be done do to ensure a smooth transition.
Weeks after becoming Nebraska’s new state CIO, Brenda Decker began reviewing her department’s technology projects. She was stumped when she came across plans to buy a shark.
“What’s a shark going to do for us?” she asked her IT staff. They explained that “Shark” was actually IBM’s nickname for its Enterprise Storage Server, which the state needed for disaster recovery. It was a scene typical of her workday in early 2005, when Decker spent her first two months as CIO assessing each IT project. During that period, she asked dozens of questions to ensure that current projects were on track and to help her decide which new projects to pursue under Gov. Dave Heineman’s administration.
“I was overwhelmed initially,” recalls Decker, whose first task was merging Nebraska’s communications systems (which she had previously managed) with the state’s information management systems, which she knew little about. “It was a situation where I asked, ‘We’re spending how much on what again?’ They drew me pictures and put on a board what happens if we don’t do it, what happens if we do it, and what happens if we just do pieces of it.”
Decker’s experience could replay itself over and over again this fall when 36 governor positions are up for grabs. Think of this article as a how-to for the new party in power, and a quick review of what newly minted CIOs can do to hit the ground running.
These days, a new governor generally results in a new state CIO, particularly when a new political party comes into power, says Doug Robinson, executive director of the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO). That’s largely because CIOs have become more significant as technology becomes integral to state government, from education and economic development to health care and public safety. Today, governors appoint most state CIOs to serve in their cabinets.
“CIOs in many states are no longer perceived as just part of tech operations, but as strategic business advisors to governors,” Robinson says. “For some of our CIOs, the only way they can truly get the tough things done and push a tech agenda forward is to have the governor’s ear, but with that visibility and the sphere of influence comes the danger that you have become politicized.”
Before IT became an executive position, state CIOs often served lengthy tenures, working for several governors’ administrations. Those long-term positions largely disappeared in the late 1990s, as governments wrestled with the Y2K bug and began investing in e-government services, says Erin Lee, program director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Governors Association’s (NGA) Homeland Security & Technology Division.
The CIO’s increase in stature has directly impacted job security. Failed multimillion dollar tech projects can result in front-page stories and questions by a state legislature’s oversight or finance committee, Robinson says. Today, state CIOs average 23 months on the job, according to NASCIO.
“It’s a double-edged sword for CIOs,” says Delaware CIO Thomas Jarrett. “They are and should be in prominent positions in a governor’s administration, but with that comes the risk of losing their jobs with a change of administration. But it’s not unique to the CIO position. It’s just part of the process.”
A new administration can adversely impact current IT projects during the transition between the November election and the new governor’s inauguration. Incoming CIOs will want to evaluate IT projects to determine whether they fit the new governor’s priorities. Before the new administration takes over, the transition process can slow down or even halt existing plans.
“If a project is within an agency, the transition doesn’t impact the project significantly,” says Cathy Pomanti, senior vice president of tech consultant BearingPoint’s state and local government practice. “But if it’s a statewide project — a cross-agency initiative — it can definitely slow it down or, in some cases, cause the project to stop because people are reluctant to make decisions until the new leaders are in place.”
Projects can be delayed even further if new governors take several months to appoint new CIOs and other cabinet positions, she adds.
State governments can help ease the transition and allow new state CIOs to hit the ground running. Current state CIOs say communicating well with other state government leaders, the new governor’s strong backing on IT initiatives, and receiving background materials and recommendations from the outgoing administration and the new governor’s transition team can help ensure a smooth conversion.
Each state’s transition process varies, but most outgoing administrations prepare briefing materials for incoming governors and their staff, which identify hot-button issues and potential problems that need to be addressed 60 to 90 days into a new administration, says Barry Van Lare, director of NGA’s Office of Management Consulting and Training.
Additionally, a new governor’s transition team — made up of advisers and former state officials — often spends the 60 days from election to inauguration evaluating state government and developing an initial agenda for the governor, including state IT issues, he says.
Washington state CIO Gary Robinson says the invaluable briefing materials he received identified troubled technology projects that required immediate attention. That dovetailed nicely with new Gov. Christine Gregoire’s IT vision and having the CIO take a more active management role in agencies’ technology projects.
Prior to joining Gregoire’s administration in February 2005, Robinson had served as the state’s acting CIO from 2001 to 2002 and, most recently, was senior assistant director of Washington’s Office of Financial Management.
The outgoing CIO’s background information reminded Robinson of his responsibilities and updated him on current IT initiatives, the budget, staff and areas that needed attention, including two failing projects. It fully prepared him to dive right in and start working, Robinson says.
“It was important to understand the focus of the previous organization, so I could proceed more effectively as I attended to the new priorities of the governor,” he says.
New CIOs typically review IT projects to make sure they fit the new governor’s priorities. Working with other state agencies, they can halt new projects, move forward with existing projects or change them midstream.
When Robinson was appointed, Gregoire asked him to ensure successful IT initiatives and gave him co-managerial duties on every agency’s IT projects. Previously, agency department heads managed their own IT projects while the Department of Information Services provided advice and support.
Robinson immediately worked to resolve the two projects that the outgoing administration identified as having problems. He worked with department leaders to get both projects back on track.
For example, the state personnel department payroll and personnel management system update was projected to be a year behind schedule. This was due to the personnel management system’s required interfaces with the state’s financial, health-care and retirement systems.
With Robinson’s input, the department broke up the project in phases, focusing first on the core payroll portion. The state has since finished the payroll implementation and is now working on the personnel-management portion.
Not every state CIO has Robinson’s good fortune to get briefing materials before stepping into office. Arizona’s Chris Cummiskey was afforded no such luxury in 2003. When newly elected Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, surprised the establishment by winning the governor’s race after about two decades of Republican rule, there were no background notes forthcoming from the outgoing administration.
Cummiskey believes this process briefly pauses government activities. He turned to his IT staff members, many of whom had been around since Arizona’s Government Information Technology Agency was established in 1997, and they gave him a crash course on the agency’s responsibilities.
“Early on, it was a rough go,” he says. “But the staff here was very helpful and got me up to speed.”
Although Cummiskey was a novice CIO, his 12 years of service in the state legislature gave him knowledge of the capitol’s inner workings. As a legislator, he helped implement videoconferencing in the Senate and House so people could testify remotely.
Thus, he already knew many of the other new cabinet members and state agency heads and had a good working relationship with them. That helped him quickly collaborate and gain consensus among those involved with moving IT projects forward.
Cummiskey lacked the time and staff to immediately do a thorough analysis of all 150 projects that were in the works. He focused on the most important and expensive state projects and made sure they were on track. “We listed them in order of priority, and that made it easier to manage,” Cummiskey says.
High on the priority list was a new $40 million payroll and human resources system that was a year behind schedule. Cummiskey discovered that the project’s scope kept expanding. He worked with Department of Administration officials to narrow the scope, split the project into phases and set new deadlines.
“You can’t just modify a project ad nauseam, so we agreed to a set of requirements and locked that in,” he says.
For Nebraska’s Decker, the governor’s supportive words helped ensure her a smooth transition into the CIO position.
Gov. Heineman assumed the governorship in January 2005 when Mike Johanns resigned to become President Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture.
Nebraska’s IT infrastructure and leadership were disjointed at the time: The CIO reported to the governor on policy issues but lacked authority over the state’s two IT departments — one managed communications and the other ran information systems. Heineman and the state legislature soon merged both departments and empowered the CIO to run the newly combined organization. He appointed Decker, then director of communications, to be CIO and bring the state’s 80 agencies together and share IT services.
“It helped me when the governor stood up and said, ‘This is one of my priorities.’ I didn’t get a lot of arguments,” Decker recalls.
Good communication was critical during the first few months on the job, she says. Decker immediately met with individual agencies to discuss the shared-services strategy and assured each agency that it would keep its IT staff. This strategy unearthed ways to collaborate and find efficiencies.
Decker brought together state agencies to review IT services and discuss their plans, and the meetings yielded immediate results.
Through the meetings, Decker discovered that 10 agencies separately planned to buy wireless e-mail devices, wireless data service subscriptions and separate device-management servers. By consolidating the purchases and getting a discount, she estimates that Nebraska saved $28,000 in one-time costs and an additional $5,000 in ongoing costs.
To be successful, new CIOs need to get to know the other cabinet members and state agency leaders so they can collaborate, Decker says. Arizona’s Cummiskey agrees.
When Cummiskey took the CIO job, Gov. Napolitano asked him to advance her agendas by combining policy planning with technology. He subsequently developed several innovative services, including Arizona 2-1-1, an emergency information phone number and Web portal for citizens. Cummiskey couldn’t have done it without working closely with other agencies.
“It’s about building individual relationships with key decision-makers,” he says. “It’s about bringing people together to solve common issues.”
Before becoming Indiana’s CIO, Karl Browning’s only exposure to government was paying taxes and voting. But when Gov. Mitch Daniels was elected and tapped Browning to help the bankrupt state save money by consolidating IT services, he had no time to worry about the transition.
“I have a boss who says ‘I want results, and I want them quickly,’” says Browning, previously CIO of Golden Rule Insurance Co. and one of many state CIOs who come from the private sector. “So rather than spending time figuring out how things work in state government, I just focused on getting stuff done.”
Since his 2005 arrival, Browning has saved Indiana an estimated $70 million by consolidating hardware and software contracts and reducing the number of IT employees. “Each agency was its own island, and consequently, it didn’t take more than a few days to figure out that we had a lot of redundancy,” he explains.
He’s done it without changing his work style to fit government. “I’ve attacked this like any problem I would have in my former life,” he says.
Browning, who hired four private sector IT management professionals to help him run the IT department, sees little difference between the private and public sectors. Company CIOs, he says, build relationships with business units to become successful. Public sector CIOs do the same thing, but with different stakeholders.
Browning is now eyeing other cost-saving opportunities. He’s currently building centralized centers for geographic information systems and document management. “Think of it as earning your spurs,” he says. “We have clearly demonstrated a record of getting work done and saving money. And that’s given us the right to take the next step.”
David Litchliter of Mississippi, Pam Ahrens of Idaho and Otto Doll of South Dakota are not your average CIOs.
In an era when most state CIOs are fortunate to last two years, the trio have the longest tenures in the country. Litchliter has worked for three administrations in his 12 years of service for Mississippi. Ahrens is in her eleventh year in Idaho, while Doll has served two governors over 10 years in South Dakota.
“If I knew the secret, I would bottle it and sell it,” Doll jokes.
Unlike many state CIOs, Litchliter reports to a lay board, whose five members are appointed to staggered five-year terms by the governor. The board, which represents the private sector and the state leadership, sets IT policies and standards. Litchliter runs day-to-day operations of the state’s technology infrastructure and serves as the state’s IT procurement agent. He also supports the board’s efforts.
Litchliter says Mississippi’s state government model allows for IT leadership continuity and the successful implementation of large projects that span multiple administrations. One of his pet projects was creating a statewide shared network for state government, libraries, universities and schools.
“Mississippi has benefited from having many state agency heads and legislators who have served during multiple administrations and terms,” he says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to start over every four years.”
Doll is South Dakota’s first and only CIO — and kept his job even when a new governor was elected. (South Dakota’s governor appoints the CIO.)
Then-Gov. Bill Janklow hired Doll from the private sector in 1996 to consolidate the IT resources strewn across South Dakota's different agencies and create a centralized IT organization. “The governor brought me in for my tech expertise and leadership to get the new central organization to jell,” he says.
When Janklow retired seven years later, Doll’s job was suddenly in limbo. Mike Rounds won the 2002 gubernatorial election and kept Doll as CIO. What helped, Doll believes, was the fact that both governors were Republicans.
“It was nerve-wracking how it would go,” he says. “Then one day, I got my 20-minute interview with him, and obviously it turned out well because he offered me the position.”
Doll has developed a good working relationship with Gov. Rounds, who’s given him the latitude to pursue fiscally responsible projects. Over the years, Doll has built a statewide radio system for public safety officials and improved the state’s Web portal site with more e-government services. His proudest achievement is wiring every K-12 school with computers.
Gov. Rounds is up for re-election this fall, and, once again, Doll’s job is in jeopardy, but he’s not fretting. “It really makes you think in four-year chunks,” he says.
Litchliter says he plans to continue working as long as his efforts continue to make Mississippi government more efficient, boost economic development and improve quality of life.
NO GUBERNATORIAL CONTEST
Of the 36 states in which gubernatorial elections are being held, 22 governors are Republicans and 14 are Democrats. Source: Center for Politics at the University of Virginia
If new CIOs are from the private sector, they should quickly find one or two mentors within state government to obtain advice on how the state works, says South Dakota CIO Otto Doll.
“They have to be willing to change how they think and how they ultimately operate day in and day out, because when you step into a public sector role, it’s radically different from the private sector,” he says.
Politics influence daily activities, which can affect a CIO’s strategy to accomplish tasks, Doll says. Thus, CIOs need to spend more energy to make things happen, which requires consensus-building with many different constituencies.
“You can no longer just snap your finger — and voila ` — everything happens,” he points out.
CIOs should network with various private and public sector CEOs and CIOs. Building these relationships can pay off when you need help or advice, says Arizona CIO Chris Cummiskey. “When we work on projects like e-health or homeland security, there is now a cadre of individuals I can call on for help,” he says.
A transition handbook for CIOs by the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) has advice ranging from how to talk to the governor to finding revenue for IT analyses.
One source, who asked to remain anonymous, says new CIOs can glean helpful information from transition team reports, but they may not be as accurate or as detailed as they could be. The source’s advice: Don’t just take someone’s word without doing your own due diligence.
Part of the problem is that transition teams have a limited amount of time to research and write their recommendations. Another problem is the multiple state leaders and agency heads interviewed for the report are unlikely to cast much light on the root problem areas. One often hears, “We don’t have enough money.” But one never hears, “We know we have a performance problem,” the source explains.
A third problem is the transition team members themselves, who aren’t always experts in the field that they are advising on. “These are people who were politically active and had political interests,” the anonymous source says. “It’s not that their input is wrong or because they were shallow. It’s just that they did not have a lot of time and experience doing the work. Most had not run a major IT shop.”
Wylie Wong is a veteran technology writer based in Phoenix.