Missouri Tech Adviser Gives Stateside Take on Contracts, Future of Information Technology

Missouri Tech Adviser Gives Stateside Take on Contracts, Future of Information Technology

Mike Benzen

Mike Benzen, Missouri's chief information officer, is the first to admit he is no tech whiz, but he certainly has learned a lot over the years.

As the governor's top information technology adviser, his primary job is to figure out how IT can be deployed to solve the problems of state government and improve operations and services there.

Benzen, who served 25 years in Missouri's Department of Mental Health, the past four as director of information technology, became the state's first CIO in 1995. He also teaches computer science in the MBA program at William Woods University in Fulton.

As the president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives, Benzen has a good view of the IT issues and problems facing other states as well as his own. He recently discussed some of these issues with Washington Technology Staff Writer Steve LeSueur.

WT: When the CIOs of states meet, what do they talk about?

BENZEN: We tend to talk about what works and what doesn't. We talk about what vendors work and which ones don't. A vendor with a failure is not going to be a secret, because we are a rather close-knit community. Somebody who is being treated fairly or poorly is going to vocalize that, and it is generally going to be known in the community what has happened.

WT: So a vendor's references with other states are extremely important?

BENZEN: If they go in and rip somebody, then 49 other states will be closed to them.

WT: Do you place a lot emphasis on a company's track record?

BENZEN: A few years ago, a lot of the bids we put out were based 90 percent on low price. And we had a lot of failures that way, because it turns out that the lowest bid may not be the lowest cost ? and it may or may not be able to accomplish the task at hand.

What we have found is with the low bid, we ended up with what we euphemistically call raiders. They come in with a low bid, try to make a quick buck, and run on down the road and leave us holding a leaky bag of fecal material.

In Missouri, we have gone to bids that are 40 percent price and 60 percent track record. We are interested in the people with a long-term commitment, those who want to be here not just for this job, but for the next three as well.

The idea of taking a chance on somebody who is not proven makes us very, very nervous. And so we tend to go with the people who we have faith in, the people who have worked for us before, that we know will bring the project in and who are not trying to nickel-and-dime us.

Now, we are not so stupid as to think vendors are doing this without making a profit. Clearly, they are. In fact, we have an interest in making sure they turn a profit. Otherwise they are not going to come back.

WT: Are other states also looking at track record when selecting vendors?

BENZEN: Yes. It's going to be a trend.

WT: So how does a new vendor break into the business?

BENZEN: If you're an outsider wanting to get in Missouri, the easier way to do it is probably to subcontract with one of the people that is there. If there is a company that has been doing something very specific across the country, and none of our normal business partners have done it before, then we may very well take a chance based on that track record.

WT: Are you seeing more award protests with 60 percent of an award decision based on track record?

BENZEN: We have not had them yet. We are prepared for it. We have held hands with the attorney general's office to make sure everything is clean, but the Missouri law on purchasing is for lowest and best, not lowest.

WT: Are year 2000 issues still a concern for the states?

BENZEN: Year 2000 is still going to consume a great deal of time, energy and resources over the next six or eight months. It is going to be the No. 1 priority for many states.

As a whole, the states have assumed responsibility for fixing their own houses and making sure they are going to function after the turn of the century. We also have assumed responsibility as a matter of public safety for those that we regulate ? banks, insurance companies, utilities ? making sure they are going to function.

States also have an outreach responsibility. In Missouri, we sent out 200,000 brochures trying to raise public awareness on Y2K on the part of medium and small businesses and county and municipal governments. That is not to say that none of them are aware of Y2K. It is a matter of trying to get some of them moving.

We've got a responsibility for public confidence. We have a lot of people out there spreading the word that the world is going to come to an end, so buy food, and buy guns to protect your food, crawl in a cave, light a candle and wait. While certainly we want to be truthful with people, it is important that we spread the word about what Y2K really is and where the dangers are and where they are not.

WT: What about spending on Y2K?

BENZEN: It is letting up. A year ago we had 340 contract people working on Y2K. Today we have less than 25. We have 84 percent of the systems back in production fully compliant. We are about 94 percent done with the whole thing. We are not really expecting a big problem, but it has been an expensive undertaking.

WT: After Y2K, what's on the agenda for the states?

BENZEN: Where we go next is electronic business solutions and direct interaction with the public. We have moved from focusing internally on what can we do with our own business processes to what can we do to interact with other organizations and the public.

Why can't a business file uniform commercial code corporations in good standing kinds of things over the Internet? Why do they have to send and process all this paper? They are computerized, and we are computerized. Let's put the pieces together. The technology is very clearly there to do it.

We need to understand that the entire world does not have a PC at home. If we begin to think in those terms and start aiming at all technological solutions, I'm not sure that would be totally acceptable to the public. But there is a tremendous amount of business and information that we can conduct with the public just by using the tools that are available today. Our next thrust is going to be in that direction.

WT: The role and responsibilities of the CIO appear to be different in each state.

BENZEN: Every one of the states is different in one degree or another. In Missouri, I am part of the governor's cabinet, and I report to the governor. In actuality, I deal mostly with the governor's chief of staff or deputy chief of staff. I don't go running into the governor's office every day. But all of my direction and support comes straight out of the governor's office.

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