When Larry Singer became the first CIO of Georgia in early 2000, he was surprised to learn how different government looks from the inside. But he was even more surprised when being a government CIO turned out to be the hardest job he’d ever had.
Before becoming the first CIO for the US state of Georgia, Larry Singer had spent most of his 20-year technology career engaging with US state governments.
A research fellow at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Singer had worked for major corporations selling software and consulting services to governments, he managed teams doing the same, and he had done consulting, systems integration and project management through a non-profit corporation he ran for the sole purpose of supporting government technology efforts.
“I could argue no one outside of government was more intimate with state government IT than I was,” he wrote in an article entitled ‘Alone in the Enterprise’ in a recent issue of the US publication Public CIO. Yet when Singer allowed himself to be persuaded to become the first CIO of Georgia in early 2000, he was amazed to discover just how different government looks from the inside. The biggest lesson is that it was the hardest job he has ever held, bar none.
Singer says he learned early that you will never find a more committed group of executives than you find in government. It is not just a job to most of them: It is a mission, it is a calling, he says. And although social workers or health-care professionals or construction engineers working for the department find it difficult to believe technologists can possibly have the same level of commitment that they have to the business mission, Singer says most techos are every bit as committed as their non-technologist peers.
It is common for people to say that if CIOs want to take a break from their real job in the private sector, they should contribute some time to the public sector and give something back to the community.
“Now I say it’s the other way around,” Singer says. “When you’re in the public sector and you need a little time off, take a job for a company where all that is at stake is making money or not making money, instead of children’s lives and public welfare. There is so much riding on the work of a state CIO. What you do matters so much. The thing about provincial and state governments is that, at least in the US, we incarcerate some prisoners and we build some roads, but virtually everything else we do is managing information exchange or transactions. So as a result, IT is so tightly interwoven into the operations that there are very few other things you can do to reduce costs and improve efficiency that have the impact of information technology.
“And while it’s very fulfilling as a result of that, you can’t afford a project failure. You and I know that 50 percent of projects fail to meet their original objective on time and on budget. But in the public sector, you only get one chance. It takes so long to get the political support you need for the funding for a project, you just can’t fail.”
As Singer, now Sun Microsystems’ vice president, Global Information Systems Strategy Office (the need to send his five children to college lured him back to the private sector), told CIO Government on a recent visit to Australia where he is working with the Victorian government, nowhere do the differences between the public and private sectors reveal themselves so much as in the area of integration.
During his tenure as state CIO, Singer laboured hard to develop cross-agency and multi-government solutions via architecture and establishment of a central IT organization capable of improving state government by using best practices from the private and state government sectors.
He says it was a major effort, complicated by the differences between the private sector and state government. In fact Singer sees those differences as significant, and believes they not only inevitably complicate the life of the government CIO but also to an extent distort the very role itself. In the private sector organizations change their business processes to tie programs together, and the customer sees only the new integrated offering. Governments rarely have the structural wherewithal to integrate the back end, so technology becomes a tool to virtually integrate the disintegrated back-end environment. And that, Singer says, “becomes one heck of a challenge”.
“I think the biggest challenge facing public sector CIOs is that the ministers and presidents and governors are promising new integrated services that are oriented around the citizen’s needs rather than the structure of programs, but there are still very narrow funding restraints around the program,” Singer says. “That means as a structure we keep things disintegrated at the back end, but try and promise an integrated experience to the customer at the front end.”
So the CIO ends up becoming a chief transformation and chief integration officer, in addition to a chief information officer. With no equivalent in most governments to a chief operating officer and with the chief of staff to the lead public official’s primary role usually being political rather than operational, there are very few people in government whose jobs are enterprise-wide.
“The CIO is almost always given that charter, but without the kind of supportive executive environment that you have with the CFO and the COO and the CPO, it’s very difficult to be an effective enterprise CIO,” he says.
Singer believes the second biggest challenge for public sector IT executives in general, and for him in particular when Georgia’s CIO, is the need to work out how to blend good politics and good policy into initiatives that also achieve objectives such as more efficient inventory turns, development of e-learning programs, providing just-in-time services at lower cost and the continual battle of replacing outdated physical environments with electronic systems.
With most state governments today in the US and Australia facing deficit and budget shortfall problems, which often influence hot-button issues such as those affecting elderly citizens and children’s education, IT is often forced to the back of the line as its focus is driven towards the need to achieve balanced objectives rather than simply raise IT budgets, he says.
Position of Authority
In the US today most state governments have a state CIO, with the holder of the title usually being someone at the highest level of IT management with state-wide authority. While each branch of government might have a CIO, it is the executive branch CIO who works under the state’s chief executive officer, the governor.
Typically the executive branch CIO oversees the state’s technology infrastructure, operating under titles as diverse as director, commissioner, chief technology officer and chief information technology officer, although the recent trend has been to designate some executive IT manager as the titular chief information officer. Singer says of these, the most successful have been those with a cabinet-level position who report directly to the governor and hold a cabinet-level position. In states where IT is an administrative agency that reports lower down, he says, state CIOs have had much less success in terms of delivering new sorts of services.
“You need not only the authority of the governor, you need their perspective — across agencies,” he says. “If you’re in one agency it is difficult for you to take a cross-agency view.”
Singer got his own stab at the role by virtue of legislation introduced by Governor Roy Barnes in the year 2000 that created the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA). Barnes’s idea was to create a central IT organization that would transform state government by integrating best practices from the private sector and existing successful state government IT management models. Singer says the level of control granted to the GTA “eclipsed that delegated by any other state”.
“The real benefit of IT comes from organizational productivity,” Singer wrote in his article for Public CIO. “Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made that point when he said the private sector received significant productivity gains from IT over the last seven to 10 years. The same potential for organizational productivity gains exists in the public sector.”
Lured by the notion of being able to make a difference — it certainly was not the money — Singer took the Georgia post believing establishment of standards and architecture were the most critical success factor for state CIOs. Most states — indeed most government entities around the world — treat each procurement as if it is a stand-alone island of technology, he says. Yet the best path to integration is to begin thinking of your assets as a portfolio, and manage that architecturally.
“I think the most fundamental thing you have to do is to be able to have that architectural vision based on a set of standards that drive individual procurement,” Singer says. “And I think the second most critical issue is to have an integrated network function. If you share a common network it’s a whole lot easier to integrate these back-end systems. Web services become a tremendously powerful way to connect back-end systems together.”
Indeed Singer says the biggest success of his tenure was the introduction of an enterprise architectural view of how to manage IT in the state, concentrating on the network, computing and interoperability. The creation of an interoperability architecture allowed Georgia to use Web services to connect back-end applications and integrate them for consumer access, and also allowed case workers and others to look across programs.
“That architectural approach, shared network infrastructure, and shared interoperability infrastructure were critical success factors from a technical perspective,” he says.
“Before this work, Georgia was spending close to 85 percent of its application development dollars on maintenance of interfaces between applications, making it very difficult for it to finance functional capabilities. Web services become a tremendously powerful way to connect back-end systems together.”
At the network level Georgia had thousands of LANs and multiple WANs. The opportunity for consolidating networks was huge, but the potential costs great. Singer says like most governments a large part of Georgia’s operations budget was committed to maintaining existing networks, and needed to convert the operations expense into capital, a situation he resolved by outsourcing the networks to achieve lower operating costs.
At the computing level he worked tirelessly to consolidate servers and data centres into an enterprise computing environment, and to convince executives in the agencies and departments that they did not need their own separate systems.
Then at the interoperability level he worked to integrate disparate back-end processes into systems that achieve better outcomes. The interoperability level allows each program to focus on its own objectives and needs, and allows an enterprise government to knit together programs around customer requirements and political objectives, Singer says. In this new Web services world, with component-based software, XML and a host of other useful middleware tools, government agencies and departments now have the ability to build their own applications based on their own business needs and still participate in the larger enterprise.
“I would say that architectural approach, shared network infrastructure and shared interoperability infrastructure are critical success factors from a technical perspective.”
Singer was particularly enthusiastic about the benefits of applying Java and .Net, which made it easy to describe a project in terms of its individual components, and so set each project up as an individual component.
“So now instead of having a $62 million child welfare system, you had $1.5 million intake system, and then you had a $1.5 million tracking system, and then you had a $1.5 million foster care system, and then you had a $3 million adoption system. And each successful delivery boosted the organization’s confidence. Smaller projects are easier to be successful with than larger projects.”
The key ingredient of the architectural approach was the establishment of a common directory structure to allow agencies to identify players, share identities, distribute authentication and centralize authorizations. While critical, this effort was phenomenally difficult, he says.
One problem was that everyone agreed with the idea of having an integrated directory, just so long as everyone else would agree to use the one they were working with.
A second problem was that while each of the agency heads saw themselves as accountable and responsible for their own business objectives, nobody really had responsibility for the operations of the government as a whole, apart from the governor and the legislature. The legislature had no operational tools to use to force the issue of an integrated directory, and the governor did not have the luxury of focusing on infrastructure operations across government as he did what all governors and other political leaders must do: react to the political issue of the day.
Singer was therefore given the authority to enforce the integrated directory, but freely admits having so much authority proved a mixed blessing.
“Indeed I probably had too much authority,” he says, “because the agency heads saw us as being threatening, because we had the power to force them to comply with what we were doing, and of course forced compliance is never as effective as voluntary compliance. So when we walked in the room it was as though we were carrying a bazooka on our back, they were so tentative about the work and feared we wouldn’t pull it off. But at the same time, having that authority made leadership easier.”
The lesson, he says, is that the authority given to the public sector CIO has to be clearly articulated, come with its own budget and have standards attached. As is the situation with the Victorian government today (the only Australian government Singer is familiar with), Georgia at the beginning of his tenure had separated standards and budget from operations. “The lesson is that you just can’t do that,” he says.
“If you have authority without the ability to serve, then people see you as a despot. If you have operational responsibilities and not only do you have authority to call people to ask them in a particular way but you have the obligation to service them so that they are able to run more efficiently, they welcome your call.”
The best way to communicate your commitment to that obligation is through SLAs that also allow you to reduce the costs of your operations, he continues. As a service provider you can deliver the benefits to the agency. If you are just an authority, you can promise as many benefits as you like, but you are not the one ultimately responsible for delivering them.
Citing a recent child welfare scandal in the US where the body of a seven-year-old boy and four other adopted boys in a severely emaciated state were found in a Newark, New Jersey basement, Singer pointed out that “when push comes to shove” the system guy is never the one who is blamed for the system not doing its job. The person who runs the welfare organization cops the rap instead.
“So at the end of the day, the IT guys can see we’re partners, but the reality is, there is no such thing as partnership,” he says. “An agency head will take all the heat publicly, and from the legislature, and from the press. That makes it very hard for those people most reliant on having reliable IT systems to see the IT people as partners, creating a paradox at the heart of the state CIO’s role. Providing services via SLAs makes it much easier for agency heads to accept you as a true partner,” he says.
“There has to be buy-in from both the executive in charge as well as the legislative branch. There has to be continued understanding of the value.”
Singer says probably the most unusual pitfall experienced during the course of his work in Georgia was the close scrutiny by the press.
Because the scope of the work he had undertaken was so large and dramatic, with the potential to affect so many people, the press wrote about it continually. Usually IT is well under the radar, but Singer ended up spending a large percentage of his time managing public perceptions and doing politics rather than just doing executive management of the IT infrastructure.
He says it is the need to be able to cope with this kind of attention, while managing the expectations of politicians, public servants and the public, that makes the state CIO such a special person.
“One of the big things that everyone says is we’ll bring in somebody from the private sector [to do the state CIO’s job]. But I think if you come from the private sector without a deep understanding of public policy, politics and public administration, you’re doomed as a CIO.”
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