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Where There's a Person, There's a Problem

Where There's a Person, There's a Problem

Like it or not: When you're a public-sector CIO, the public will have a lot to say about everything you do.

The events in this story occurred on January 10 and 11, 2005.

At 6:45 am, it's still dark outside Robert Taylor's corner office in the Government Center building on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta. Taylor, CIO for Fulton County in the US state of Georgia, is hunched over his keyboard, scrolling through the e-mails that he received yesterday and was unable to answer from home on his BlackBerry - one of the last things he does before going to bed every night. Taylor finishes, pushes the keyboard away and walks over to a conference table where Terry Gates, the county's CTO, is waiting for him.

"OK, let's get started," Taylor says. "There seems to be an issue at the library?"

For the next hour and a half, Taylor and Gates, who Taylor hired in November from Atlanta-based Home Depot to manage day-to-day technology operations, discuss nearly a dozen issues - including switching the county library PCs off the old and insecure state network to the more secure county network, service-level agreements for the county's help desk, an inventory of the computer room, voice over IP, videoconferencing, ways to satisfy the county commissioners' desire to increase investments in minority organizations, the need to expand a telephone system at a nearby county building, and a calendar for IT maintenance and upgrades that all county employees can view.

Despite the rainbow of tasks and challenges that come up, the discussion turns - as most discussions in Taylor's office inevitably do - into a conversation about staff:

"Is he a good candidate for a project manager?"

"I'm concerned he takes over and pushes people out of the way."

"He's spread too thin."

"He's only coasting and waiting to retire."

Since becoming CIO in 2000, Taylor has implemented the county's first IT security plan, updated and upgraded the county's hardware and software, and perhaps most important, secured a seat at the county management table - the first Fulton County CIO to do so. But he constantly worries about the many people on his staff who lack project management and technology skills and suffer from the bureaucratic lethargy (endemic to government) that discourages innovation. He also worries about his staff's age: A quarter of his 145 people will be eligible for retirement in the next two years. And then, there's money. Right now, Taylor has 10 unfilled positions because a number of staff members retired at the end of 2004, and until recently, he'd been operating under a hiring freeze. Still, even with the freeze lifted, Taylor knows that finding the talent he needs will be difficult.

The Public-Sector Squeeze

Taylor's situation is not atypical. According to CIO's "The State of the CIO 2004" survey in the US, out of 11 possible choices, government CIOs named "lack of key technical skill sets within IT" as one of their five biggest barriers to being effective. Not so for Taylor's private-sector counterparts, who ranked a lack of IT skills as the eighth biggest barrier to effectiveness (locally, it was ranked as the third biggest barrier by Australian public sector CIOs, eighth by CIOs in the private sector). As is the case in the private sector, Taylor faces a tight budget. Taylor's budget for 2004 was $US24 million, a slight increase from the $US21 million he had in 2000, the year he was hired. But most of that increase came from a 2004 reorganization that transferred 30 positions and related contracts to his department. The lines of business Taylor is responsible for increased from 20 to 42. After all that figures in, Taylor argues that his budget actually has decreased over that time. Despite these hurdles, Taylor has set some lofty goals for his department. He wants Fulton County to be one of the leading IT-managed counties in the nation. And from the looks of the awards from trade magazines such as Governing and Computerworld (a sister publication to CIO) that sit on his office shelves, it seems he's had a measure of success. But to do so, he says, he's had to "bang the hell out of vendors to squeeze every dollar out of contracts", force a cultural change within his IT shop, and convince elected officials and department heads that IT is core to the job of running a government.

"This job is like walking a tightrope, carrying a balance bar with a deadweight on one side and a live animal on the other and knowing you have to make it across the canyon with no net," Taylor says. "But if you make it to the other side, you know it'll be worth it."

A Personnel Problem

Taylor wraps up his meeting with Gates at 8:30. He's already behind schedule, and he doesn't like it. Two of his top managers - Sandra Lawton, deputy director of applications, and Richard Garrett, assistant director for applications - arrive to discuss an appeal filed by an employee who was fired last August for a performance-related matter. The former employee claims the firing was discriminatory on several grounds, including religion and national origin. Given the statements of his managers, Taylor is reluctant to hire the individual back.

Taylor and the managers discuss the former employee's charges relating to current rules for time sheets, attendance and access to various secured areas within the department. The discussion centres on questions that the county's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity asked in a memo about attendance, work assignments and accommodations for religious practices. Taylor's managers say accommodations were made to allow the employee to wear traditional clothing and to allow time off in the early afternoon on Fridays to observe his religion. Micromanaging is what Taylor calls this stuff, and he says it takes away from what he would like to do - strategic planning. "These are the kinds of issues you have to deal with in government," he says on his way to the 10th floor to meet with the county manager. "I have a lot of issues like these. If I didn't have to deal with all this, I would be twice as productive."(A few weeks later, the county Personnel Board rules that there is no evidence of discrimination but votes to reinstate the employee, suggesting that termination was too harsh a disciplinary measure.)

The Boss and the Budget

County Manager Tom Andrews has called a meeting of his direct reports to discuss additions to the annual budget. Taylor reports to Andrews, who hired him in 2000 from the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, Technology Services division. Andrews's choice was a signal that the county was taking IT seriously. The position's title was changed from director of technology to CIO, and Taylor was the first IT chief since the position was established in 1993 to have had both academic and technological training.

The directors of health, public works, finance, budget and others attend the meeting. Only Taylor and Andrews wear suits. Taylor has on a charcoal pinstriped three-piece suit, a white shirt with French cuffs, gold and turquoise mother-of-pearl cuff links and a red silk tie with a quiet blue design. Taylor admits to being a clotheshorse, with 33 suits and 15 pairs of shoes in his closet. He also says he dresses this way because he never knows when he's going to run into a judge, the secretary of state, a reporter or the governor. Furthermore, he believes his suits help him project an image of the IT department as something more than just a programming shop, which is how it was viewed before he arrived. What IT does, he says, is central to the county's mission and directly serves county residents. "I need to always be in position to project a positive image," Taylor says. "Of course, to show I haven't completely sold out my south Georgia, farm-boy heritage, I push the envelope with long hair and a goatee."

Taylor listens to other department heads discuss a list of add-ons to the 2005 budget, which the commissioners will consider the following week. This, Taylor believes, will be his chance to ask for $US500,000 to modernize a jail management system to track the inmate population, which all three justice departments - the superior court, the state court and the district attorney's office - could use to access prisoner information in real time. The old system was built in 1994 and had its only refresh in the late 1990s to prepare for Y2K. It is four versions behind and still runs on mainframe flat files. "I've begged, pleaded and waved all sorts of flags, but I haven't been able to get the funds to modernize it," Taylor says before the meeting. The present system is ancient green-screen tech and requires users to move through more than a dozen screens to input data. The upgrade also will update the workflow application, called the Justice Datalink, that connects the prison system to the superior court, state court and DA's office.

The meeting is winding down, but the county budget director has not mentioned the prison project. It's not on the list. Taylor asks Andrews if that means it isn't considered important. "If it doesn't come up, my guess is that it won't be added," Andrews tells Taylor. On the way back to his office, Taylor is quiet.

His Pal, the Vendor

After the budget meeting, Taylor has a sit-down with Kwang Kim, president of Consilium Consulting, which manages the county's databases - including Oracle, Unix and e-mail.

Before the meeting starts, Taylor explains that he has no certified database administrators on staff. The starting annual salary for a database administrator at the county tops out at $US65,000, but Taylor says he would likely have to pay more than $US100,000 for a certified database administrator. For years, Taylor has asked the Board of Commissioners to fund three positions to support database administration. He's been turned down every time. That, and his inability to find people with the requisite skills, led to his decision to outsource the work. Taylor outsourced the county's Web site hosting last year and technical services in 2003.

About two dozen companies submitted bids for the database management contract, and Taylor chose Consilium, which bid $US5.8 million over five years to manage 20 databases, and fixed another price to accommodate growth. Taylor has been pleased with the arrangement. His systems are now more reliable, and if there's a problem, Taylor says his calls to Consilium are returned within the hour, 24/7.

Still, it hasn't been a completely smooth transition. An employee filed a grievance with the county's Equal Employment Opportunity office after the contract was awarded, claiming he had the skills to manage the databases. Taylor disagreed, adding that he had neither the time nor money to train someone. The EEO office ruled that the outsourcing move was not discriminatory and that Taylor, indeed, did not have the appropriate skills on staff. The meeting with Consilium goes well, and Taylor likes what he hears. They discuss the status of databases related to specific applications, such as justice. The county's Oracle licence was scheduled to expire today, but Kim reports he received an e-mail confirming that the licence has been extended for one month with no out-of-pocket money from Taylor. "That's the kind of service Kwang can provide because of his connections," Taylor says. "That might not have happened if this was in-house."

For the duration of the meeting, Taylor has no headaches, no complaints to attend to, no budget decisions to make.

This quiet time doesn't last long.

The Project Demo Disaster

Taylor crosses the Government Center building to attend a meeting of the Criminal Justice Information Policy board, a group that meets on IT issues affecting the superior court, state court and DA's office. Taylor arranged for Tiburon, the maker of the prison information system software, to demonstrate the upgrade. Taylor wants everyone to understand what's being proposed. More than 30 people attend.

On the way into the meeting, someone from the public defender's office pulls Taylor aside to ask what to do about an employee who is violating e-mail policy. Taylor says he'll get back to him after the meeting. "This happens all the time," Taylor says. "I've had them follow me into the bathroom and talk to me about something that's worrying them while I'm standing at the urinal." Most people watching the demonstration are open to the idea of a new Tiburon jail system. But the DA's office is concerned that it won't provide adequate confidentiality and that Tiburon hasn't had a good track record in maintaining the current system, which frequently crashes. The DA's office wants to spend $US7 million on its own system, which would set Taylor back in his strategy to centralize IT for the county. The DA's office has its own IT staff - a small one - that does some basic applications support and desktop and network maintenance, but Taylor's shop would be accountable for the provisioning and management of the DA's system.

On a giant whiteboard, Tiburon representatives project three screen shots, side by side, which represent the three judicial departments. Taylor's demo is supposed to show how information entered into one database will immediately show up on all the others. But the projector freezes several times and data keyed into one page does not show up on the others.

Taylor is not pleased, and he worries that the Tiburon execs have not stressed how they will partner with the county on the upgrade. After the meeting, Taylor talks to Major Skip Platt from the sheriff's office, who assures Taylor that he supports the upgrade. Superior Court Judge Doris Downs, once sceptical about the upgrade, pulls Taylor aside to say she's pleased with what she saw. "Maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought," Taylor says.

Another People Problem

As soon as Taylor is back behind his desk, Russell Mobley, assistant director for administration, comes in carrying a piece of paper. "We have an issue here," Mobley says. "Someone called [County Board] Commissioner [Bill] Edwards's office, complaining that he applied for the CTO job and never got a call for an interview. They want an explanation." Taylor takes the resume from Mobley and scans it. "Come on," he says, pulling on his suit jacket and heading for the elevator and the commissioner's tenth floor office. His next meeting is going to have to wait.

Complaints like this are not unusual. Many of Taylor's staffing and hiring decisions, especially for some of the top paying positions, are questioned because the openings are publicly posted. And Taylor must answer to the commissioners.

In Edwards's office, Taylor explains to two of the commissioner's assistants that he received 145 applications for the position and interviewed the top 12. The person complaining lacked sufficient management experience (he had supervised only four people in the past) and had no experience as a CTO. Therefore, he didn't make the first cut.

The assistants are satisfied, thank Taylor, and Taylor and Mobley head back down to the ninth floor.

Sometimes, Things Work Out

Taylor sends an e-mail to me. "The [Board of Commissioners] meeting on the budget is today. I just received the funding for upgrading the jail. Victory!!" Taylor got the $US500,000 to upgrade the jail management system as well as $US200,000 for a new Unix-based server on which to run it. The sheriff's office threw its weight behind the proposal and helped argue that the upgrade would be cheaper than a new system and still meet everyone's needs.

"This really makes it worthwhile when you look back across the canyon to see how far you've come and how far down the canyon floor actually was," Taylor says.

Robert Taylor

Title: CIO

Organization: Fulton County, Georgia

Reports to: Tom Andrews, county manager

IT staff: 145

Budget: $US24 million

Experience: MBA, University of Georgia; coursework for PhD in computer science. Program manager, GeoLogistics International, 1998-2000; director of IT, provider systems, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, 1996-1998; project manager, Delta Airlines, 1995-1996. IT staff and management positions with health-care and academic institutions, 1974-1995.

Performance Measures:

  • Responsiveness to Board of Commissioners' requests for IT projects and information
  • Delivery of ROI for major technology initiatives
  • Efficiency of IT operations
  • Getting the best deal from vendors while adhering to purchasing laws
  • Delivery of IT systems on time and within budget
  • Satisfaction of customer expectations

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