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New IT Sheriff in the Empire State

Michael Mittleman inherited a challenging job late last year when he took over as New York state CIO. Fortunately, he has 40 years of IT experience.

When Jim Dillon, New York’s CIO, stepped down late last year, the state found his successor nearby. Having served as Dillon’s deputy throughout his tenure, Michael Mittleman had a four-year running start.

There’s no question that Mittleman has a lot on his plate overseeing $2 billion in annual spending, exclusive of staffing — the state employs 4,500 to 5,000 people in IT roles — and coordinating the IT work of 70 separate state agencies.

So where does the 40-year IT veteran start? For openers, he has identified some salient areas in which to concentrate during his first months of tenure.

PRIORITIZATION

“The idea of making a horizontal priority list is self-defeating,” Mittleman says. “Everything cannot have equal priority. Resources are always limited.” Throughout the year, he works closely with the Governor’s Office and the Division of Budget to get an understanding of what the following year will look like, and then he turns to his CIO Council to make plans. “Our priorities aren’t idiosyncratic,” he says. “Our overall IT plan is shaped and developed by consensus.”

INTEGRATION

At the top of Mittleman’s list is a goal that most CIOs share: improved integration. “Information integration was paramount under the previous administration, and it still is,” he says. “We view information as a valuable resource. We pay a lot to capture it, protect it and maintain it, and it brings value to the decision-making process.”

The two main problems he faces are separate funding streams and silos that make the easy exchange of data a challenge. Mittleman cites authentication as an example. “Tradition has it that individual applications in each agency have their own way of authenticating people to the app and to the data,” he says. “There’s nothing consistent about it. For those poor unfortunates who have to access apps concurrently, it requires multiple log-ons.”

The state’s 70 agencies have asked Mittleman to find a way to authenticate centrally, and he hopes to have a proof-of-concept application ready in a couple of months. Establishing standards is a related goal. To help accomplish this, the CIO’s office has published enterprise architecture principles on its Web site, www.cio.state.ny.us.

ANNUAL TECHNOLOGY PLANS

Mittleman keeps a handle on his state’s huge IT operation by asking agencies to write annual technology plans that he collates and studies to look for priorities and opportunities for integration. The reports describe the agency’s technological status quo and where it intends to go.

Meg Levine, director of the state’s Office for Technology, says, “With the development of the annual technology plans, we’re better able to have a window on what’s coming down the pike. That, combined with a strong IT governance model, will give us better direction to set priorities.”

Mittleman, therefore, has the ability to give the state budgeters a heads-up on what types of requests will be coming in, while the Office of General Services learns about procurements in the pipeline. Mittleman calls it a “coherent and rational way to plan.”

CENTRALIZATION VS. DECENTRALIZATION

The other big challenge is managing the constant push and pull of centralization vs. decentralization. Mittleman points out that in his 40 years in IT — going all the way back to vacuum tubes — he’s been on both sides of the issue. “We started off with mainframes, where everything was codified to be centralized,” he says, “but in the early ’80s, midrange computers came out, so a lot of departments leaned toward decentralization.”

Norm Jacknis, CIO of Westchester County, N. Y., says, “Centralization vs. decentralization has been a consuming issue, particularly for the state agencies. You’ve got lots of departments at the state level that have been investing on their own in infrastructure and technology. If they had pooled their efforts, they might have done the job more cost-effectively. But state agencies are concerned they won’t get the same responsiveness from a centralized IT staff.”

IDEAS VS. EXECUTION

It’s a challenge that Anne Roest, deputy commissioner of New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, also sees. “I believe we have consensus about whether we should be consolidating and what we should be consolidating,” she says. “At the CIO level, for the most part, we’ve reached a comfortable place: that we should be consolidating some of the fundamental IT services because it’s smart government. It’s figuring out how to consolidate that’s difficult: how to get buy-in within the agencies where consolidation will affect our staff.”

Today, New York state has some centralized mainframe services, which would be costly for an individual department to build and would require extensive skill sets, Mittleman says. While the state has deployed thousands of servers to various agencies, many of their applications shouldn’t be centralized, he says. The bottom line, according to the IT veteran: “Complete decentralization is impractical and won’t get done in any one lifetime. The juice is not worth the squeeze on that one.”

BEST AND BRIGHTEST

With so much to tackle, it’s easy to wonder why Mittleman, who could certainly retire after his illustrious career in public service, would take on the state CIO job. When asked about this, he answers with a question: “Why shouldn’t the public sector have some of the best and brightest? I like the problems that public service grapples with. They’re very complicated, and I enjoy complex things.”

Putting 81 CIOs in One Room

How do you manage a state IT infrastructure when you have to communicate with 81 CIOs representing dozens of executive agencies and local governments? The answer: get together and talk. In 2002, current New York State CIO Michael Mittleman and his predecessor Jim Dillon came up with the idea of the CIO Council, a quarterly face-to-face gathering of all those departmental CIOs to establish enterprise architecture principles, advance new procurement methods, prioritize and encourage communication.

“As policies or ideas come up in draft status, they’re circulated throughout the membership for additional input and refinement,” says Mittleman, who serves as chairman. “We’ve always been very inflexible on one point: consensus building. If there’s no general consensus on an idea, we don’t implement it.”

The most important project the council is currently tackling is the creation of a new statewide financial management system. It’s precisely the kind of interagency project that requires complete cooperation. The council has involved the Division of Budget from the start, speaking with a single voice as it emphasizes that this is not just a technology project, but rather a business project that’s as much about processes as bits and bytes.

The council accomplishes even more through six standing committees — human resources, procurement, security, technology, intergovernmental communications and strategic planning — which meet monthly or even more frequently if an important issue arises. Mittleman is pleased with the results. “There had never been such a mechanism for the free exchange of ideas and storytelling before,” he says. “It’s fabulous.”

Norm Jacknis, CIO of Westchester County, N. Y., and co-chair of the technology committee, agrees. “The council helps people grapple together with the issues everyone faces,” he says. “Instead of the dozens of solutions to problems that would result from working individually, we can all come up with a common set of solutions at considerably less cost. It helps save money and increases the productivity and effectiveness of the government.”

Adds Anne Roest, deputy commissioner of New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, “It’s difficult to imagine how we CIOs did our jobs before the CIO Council.”

You can find this issue’s stories, plus past StateTech editorial content, at STATETECHMAG.com.

Oct 31 2006

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