California's CIO Brings Unity to IT

John Thomas Flynn, California's first chief information officer, brings order to a system unaccustomed to listening to one unified voice

P> When California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed the first person ever to have oversight of the largest state infotech budget, he wanted someone with experience. So he turned to John Thomas Flynn.

Flynn is no stranger to the position of chief information officer -- or to being the first state CIO. In July 1994, he also was appointed Massachusetts' first CIO. Being the first CIO requires a unique vision. The CIO sets the tone for future office holders.

One of the most challenging aspects of being California's CIO is the sheer breadth of the state's government. Consider that the state's annual electric bill is $60 billion, and you begin to get an idea of the size of the government, which has more than 150 departments.

In an environment where everyone thinks big, it's no wonder some IT procurements are just as big. "One of the biggest differences between here and Massachusetts is that I have to add three zeros to everything," Flynn said.

Yet those large procurements often run into trouble. For example, an effort to modernize the Department of Motor Vehicles' IT systems cost approximately $50 million, and "when they were done, there was nothing to show for it," Flynn said.

Because state funding is shrinking, those kinds of expenses no longer are acceptable. WT talked to Flynn to find out what changes he plans to institute.

WT: What are your goals for the state's IT infrastructure?

FLYNN: The first goal is to establish better oversight. We're in a bit of a triage situation here. We have about 20 major technology projects that have been identified by various sources as being extremely large, complex and possibly prone to problems because of their sheer size.

We've instituted a broad oversight function to structure the way these projects are managed, how the reporting and scheduling are done. We actually outsourced all oversight activities to six private firms and then recently contracted with Andersen Consulting to oversee those firms. This is the first step of a triage situation. We want to make sure we don't have the same kind of problems that we've had in the past with some of our more dramatic project failures, particularly at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The second goal is to improve planning and coordination. We're in the process of creating the Information Technology Coordinating Council. Each cabinet secretary appoints a technical representative and a senior program manager.

A number of other goals fall into the everything else category. These range from the year 2000 change issues to data center consolidation to establishing a virtual data-base that would hold shared state information. My dream is that if somebody got married, they'd only have to change their name in one database.

WT: What are the unique challenges of being a state's first CIO?

FLYNN: A philosopher once said, "You govern a great nation like you cook a small fish. You don't overdo it." I've always thought that's the way you have to do it in an environment like this, where you must lay out broad principles, but require a coordinated investment.

In the past, most larger agencies ran as separate fiefdoms, and consequently "islands of automation" were pervasive. However, with the tightening of budgets at the state, local and federal levels, there's less and less money available. More and more folks are seeing the need to, once and for all, coordinate their investment.

Several things have led us in this direction. One reason is that there was no elegant way to get access to disparate information systems. Gradually, people began to think it would be wonderful if we had coordinated the design of these various databases. I think a lot of us are realizing that now and are insisting upon it. That's a real change.

WT: Because most of the current systems do not talk to one another right now, will you have to revamp all the agencies' systems?

FLYNN: Like everything else, after four or five years, new applications come along in different areas. Although we have many, many legacy systems, we currently are spending about $1.5 billion on approximately 70 different IT projects. Two-thirds of the projects probably involve some sort of a database design, so there is a migration strategy to get us where we want to be.

WT: What are some of the top IT projects in the state?

FLYNN: We probably have the same ones as most states. The biggest involve our social service agencies -- child welfare is a national initiative paid for primarily by the federal government that involves developing a case-tracking system for children. The second one would be developing a welfare eligibility system. And the third is child support. Those three projects alone in California account for $1.5 billion over the next five or six years. We also have some law enforcement initiatives involving violent crime and sexual offenders.

WT: Do you use any innovative approaches to funding projects?

FLYNN: In California, infotech projects traditionally have been funded from our annual operating budget. However, California has embarked on alternative financing mechanisms, which I think have become a model for other states.

In California, we've become more and more concerned about the traditional 'us and them' relationship with vendors, and the fact that the state was the only one taking on any of the risk. We've reformed our procurement system, so much more of the burden of risk falls on the vendor. Consequently, if a company says a new system is going to save us X amount of dollars, we'll pay the vendor after it is running and producing increased revenues that were promised.

WT: How did the business community react to these changes?

FLYNN: I think it makes the vendors understand that we're very serious about this implementation, and we're only interested in organizations that are willing to put their reputation and their checkbook on the line.

WT: What kind of procurement vehicle does the state use to purchase goods and services?

FLYNN: There is a master service agreement that was put in place about 10 years ago, and it has been a godsend. The traditional passion play of procurement has been reduced. Purchases can now, in some cases, be done in a couple of days.

WT: How big is the state's IT budget?

FLYNN: It's about $1.5 billion to $2 billion, including telecommunications services.

WT: Will that budget increase during the next five years?

FLYNN: There is a growing recognition in government that technology is an enabler and allows government to perform more services on demand. The funding for projects will be there. People will want to see the applications, whether it's walking up to a kiosk to find information or selling fish licenses over the Internet. Government is changing to become more like businesses. Instead of walking from agency to agency to get services done, we're moving to a day when one person will be able to handle all your requests. The funding for the technology will be there because the demand for these services is.

WT will run interviews in upcoming issues with key infotech strategists from other states. Send suggestions to or call Sina Fusco Kniseley at (703) 848-2800.

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