Politics Trip State, Local CIOs

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Politics Trip State, Local CIOs

By Dennis McCafferty
Staff Writer

Establishing the position of chief information officer in state and local governments is no simple matter, as officials in Connecticut have discovered.

Looking to become Connecticut's first CIO, Rock Regan got a quick lesson in the game of political hardball. Overseeing statewide information technology strategy, Regan has served as a chief architect for a controversial proposal to outsource all of the state's information technology-based work.

But labor forces have voiced staunch opposition to the plan and are trying to block Gov. John Rowland's appointment of Regan to the CIO post.

A flurry of activity has left both his permanent appointment and the outsourcing initiative on hold, according to those familiar with the controversy.

During a special session that ended shortly after midnight June 26, Regan's opponents attempted to introduce legislation mandating that the CIO have a master's degree in computer science - a degree which Regan, an engineer by training, lacks. That amendment failed but the special session failed to resolve any of the issues.

In legislative chambers, rumors spread that Regan and the Rowland administration had already hand-picked a contractor for the outsourcing award, even though the bidding process is far from complete, Regan said. The labor union has submitted one of four proposals to be prime contractor for the seven-year, $1.4 billion outsourcing effort.

Regan is now acting CIO and his permanent appointment awaits approval by state lawmakers during the next session in February.

"It was brutal what we had to go through here,'' Regan said. "People knew I was going to be CIO. ... The unions made it very personal. They attack me anytime they can. To them, the governor is looking to do nothing more than commit the biggest act of political patronage in the history of Connecticut.''

While developments in Connecticut remain among the more acrimonious in recent memory, it's clear that state and local governments large and small are marching forward with the creation of CIO positions. Often, the recruited CIO is bringing a significant amount of federal government experience to the job.

"A lot of the political and organizational issues are quite similar,'' said Les Hearn, who stepped into the position of Maryland CIO after serving for five years as director of information resources management for the Maritime Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. "That makes it a bit easier to get into the mix and be productive. The learning curve is not as steep as it would be for someone outside of government services.''

Connecticut, New Mexico, South Dakota, Rhode Island and Maryland have either created a CIO position since September 1996 or established a similar job role, according to interviews and a survey by the National Association of State Information Resource Executives in Lexington, Ky. Roughly half of the U.S. states have a CIO or a person who acts in that high-level capacity with respect to information technology policy, according to officials at Federal Sources Inc., a research firm in McLean, Va.

Although each government will define the position to suit its own needs, the CIO essentially centralizes the position of authority over information technology policy, providing clear direction for agency officials as they make technology purchases. The CIO reports to the heads of government directly, as opposed to being buffered by an agency director.

As more and more governments seek interactive state intranets to provide online services to taxpayers, the CIOs are often key in guiding the state, city or county in that direction. For example, Hearn said Maryland will be able to launch electronic real estate license and car license tag renewal applications, among other initiatives, with a more unified sense of purpose under a CIO. In addition, he's encouraging a stronger business plan for agencies to tackle year 2000 computer fixes.

"The real value of a CIO is that you have a foot in business,'' said Mike Hale, who has served as Georgia's first CIO since June 1995 and once worked as a technical adviser for the U.S. Army. "You're not just a technician in the data center. You're looking at how to make the business model work and how technology can be found to make it work.''

Industry leaders say that is why people like Regan should not be singled out for their lack of formal information technology training. Many CIOs don't have hard-core, technology backgrounds.

"CIOs are not technicians, necessarily,'' said Thomas Davies, vice president of consulting for Federal Sources. "They're business leaders. They're launching initiatives in procurement reform and outsourcing. They're integrating the technology within the state government enterprise.''


Nebraska photo

Nebraska Govenor Ben Nelson

Nebraska, which is using a cigarette tax to help fund year 2000 software fixes, is proceeding cautiously with plans to establish a cabinet-level CIO within the year. The state is seeking advice from outside consultants about how much authority should be centralized without the position becoming dictatorial.

"There can be a negative backlash [from agencies] with constrictive uses and putting all the confidence in one person,'' said Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson. "So you have to be careful not to do that. It's healthy to have this debate so it's not totally controlled by a technology czar.''

Other states like New York, however, have resisted the idea of hiring a CIO.

"Many argue that when you establish a CIO at the cabinet level, it establishes awareness of the issue and helps leverage funds,'' said Camaron Thomas, director of New York Gov. George Pataki's task force on information resource management. "But there are downsides. Some say information is a resource. If that's so, then so are buildings. Would you have an office of buildings? Would you have an office of cars?''

Nevertheless, some local governments are following suit and hiring CIOs. Los Angeles County hired CIO Jon Fullinwider in late January. Fullinwider is now assessing each department's use of information technology and deciding how much more centralized the process will become.

"You can draw a line in the sand and win, but you can also lose,'' Fullinwider said. "So you want to be cautious.''

The city of Charleston, S.C., is hiring for the position as well. Yolo County, Calif., a rice and tomato farming community of 150,000 about 15 miles west of Sacramento, recently signed a one-year contract for Bill Hookano to serve as CIO. The idea is to let Hookano whip information technology services into shape, then leave the job for a permanent CIO.

Past attempts to automate human resources and court justice systems in Yolo County have met with failure. The court system, for example, was supposed to allow attorneys to get daily court schedule updates through an automated phone call. But now it takes up to 45 minutes to get the court calendar into a computer, said Keith Ott, the county's director of general services.

"We thought we were doing pretty good, but we are behind the curve in a number of areas,'' said Ott, explaining the need for a CIO.

In Connecticut, both Regan's pending appointment and outsourcing proposal face a stiff challenge. The outsourcing initiative must undergo a state audit and legislative approval. A 3/5ths vote by either the state house or senate can defeat the outsourcing.

Connecticut is the first state to propose a complete outsourcing of IT. State and local government information technology outsourcing is growing at 20 percent annually and represents a $936 million market for contracts, according to G2 Research Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

A leader of the union that is bidding on the outsourced work in Connecticut promises that vocal opposition will continue into the next session. Other bidders for the work are Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp.; Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems Corp.; and El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp. Connecticut officials would like to award the contract to one prime contractor, but may opt to outsource the work to two bidders.

"We represent the people who do the data processing in the state,'' said Rick Melita, political education coordinator for the Connecticut State Employees Association, which represents 600 data processing professionals. "We know the needs of the state and we know where past management has dropped the ball. We find that the solution of outsourcing is a wrong one. ... From a philosophical point of view, there's a concern over so much access to information being so concentrated.''


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