For state and local governments, there are few things as challenging as developing a coherent technology plan.
Tight budgets, rapidly changing technology and a constantly shifting operating environment often conspire to create a perfect storm. Too often, agencies, divisions and departments wind up with systems that do not adequately address the needs of constituents and business partners. They spend money and devote time to projects that do not provide the required level of performance or return on investment.
Yet, rather than succumb to a growing wave of problems, some agencies are turning to a structured IT plan to link strategic objectives to technology. By thoroughly understanding the needs of a governor, mayor, county commissioner, legislature or other government body, it’s possible to reduce redundancies, streamline implementations and achieve maximum results. No less important: Government is able to provide a higher level of service to the tax-paying public.
Achieving success, however, is no simple task. For one thing, it’s essential to develop a governance model with adequate input, structure and flexibility. For another, any major change in the way an agency operates is likely to cause at least some disruption as workers adapt to new policies and procedures. Finally, there’s the need to measure results and use metrics to close the loop. Yet, on the front lines of IT, it’s clear that a sound strategic plan goes a long way toward achieving best-practice results.
New York state is among the leaders in developing strategic IT plans. In 2003, it established an initial plan under the direction of the CIO and with input from senior members of its Office for Technology and other agencies, including the State Division of Budget, the Office of General Services and the Department of Civil Service. “From the beginning, we felt that it was important to be sensitive to the issues facing local governments and develop a plan that respects their needs,” CIO Michael R. Mittleman says.
The state immediately established an 82-person council representing the diverse array of agencies. From the beginning, the focus was on keying decision-making to the governor’s objectives and agencies’ business plans established by various state agencies. “The focus was not on IT,” Mittleman says, “it was on providing the services and operations required to run the state effectively.”
For example, there’s typically little or no value derived from different agencies operating separate e-mail systems. Mental health agencies, however, may require unique applications. In addition, the governor might emphasize economic development, and agencies must incorporate the theme into their strategic plans.
A CIO Council comprised of seven operating committees — Leadership, Technology, Security, Human Resources, Fiscal/Procurement, Strategic Planning and Intergovernmental Communications — then reviews the recommendations and develops a focused strategy. Yet, the plan offers flexibility. The CIO can override the plan in the event of a change or an emergency.
This model is in sharp contrast to the past. For years, different departments handled their own procurements, software development and IT implementations. This resulted in a fractured approach that created overlap and inefficiency, Mittleman says. With a strategic plan in place, New York has managed to save more than $30 million on PC buys and more than $1 million on printers — while reducing IT costs and improving service delivery, he says. Other beneficial products of the New York State IT Strategic Plan and the CIO Council include peer reviews, annual technology planning, enterprise architecture oversight and a statewide IT skills survey.
The CIO Council meets quarterly to review the plan and adapt it as necessary. The council’s operating committees meet at least monthly to develop strategies and advance the work necessary to accomplish the plan’s objectives. Once a year, executive branch agencies embark on a technology planning process. “We are constantly monitoring and evaluating whether our investments are aligned with agency missions and IT strategic plans. We’re down where the rubber hits the road,” Mittleman says.
The most recent plan focuses heavily on New York’s Statewide Wireless Network (SWN); plans for a statewide financial management system; enterprise identity and access management capability; replacement of conventional telecommunications services with Voice over Internet Protocol; and a new data center that supports mainframe operations and server consolidation.
A Dynamic Approach
Another state that takes strategic IT planning seriously is South Carolina. It began to develop a comprehensive plan at the end of 2001. Previously, it had used a program that had been in place since the early 1980s but lacked the dynamic elements required for today’s business environment, CIO Jim Bryant says. Failed projects were a growing concern. “We wanted to develop something that agencies could actually use to manage information technology,” he says.
Getting the initiative off the ground and coordinating various groups was an enormous challenge. So South Carolina created an Architectural Oversight Committee. It incorporates 79 agencies and three universities that meet monthly. It also introduced an 18-person Steering Committee comprised of eight functional domains, including health, judicial, regulatory and administrative services. The latter group makes decisions based on the recommendations of the oversight committee and uses data from 86 disciplines that encompass protocols for local and wide area networks, switches and routers, wireless technology, e-mail and more.
The plan, which took approximately six months to develop, has revolutionized the way the state operates, Bryant says. For example, in the past, agencies had wildly varying standards — and a mismatch often existed between needs and resources. Now, with visibility into each agency and an awareness of state standards among agencies, it’s possible to distribute systems and technology more effectively. Consequently, South Carolina has lowered costs and is now managing resources more efficiently. “The goal is to have a dynamic plan, so there’s no need to develop a new plan,” Bryant says.
According to Plan
Local agencies are also devoting attention to strategic IT planning. For example, Miami-Dade County previously approached IT planning from a top-down perspective. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to have the CIO’s office making all the decisions,” CIO Donald Fleming says. “There’s a need for a much more inclusive and collaborative governance model.”
This outlook led the county to introduce three bodies for governing IT: a Leadership Council of the most senior IT officers from 15 departments to handle technical issues, a governing board of department heads to make business decisions and an Industry Advisory Council to offer an external perspective from vendors and business executives.
“The process focuses on the justification for making strategic investments in information technology,” Fleming says. “It all gets back to what we’re trying to do over the next three to five years and what strategic direction gets us from where we are to where we want to be.” Once committees identify gaps, they are able to begin addressing them and allocating resources. Using benchmarks and metrics to measure results, Miami-Dade estimates a 4 percent to 6 percent annual productivity gain as well as cost savings.
To be sure, strategic planning is here to stay. And government agencies that get it right are on track to function more efficiently and effectively.
Miami-Dade County Offers Governance Model
- Leadership Council handles tech issues
- Governing board makes business decisions
- Industry Advisory Council gives independent perspective
Smart Ways to Plan Better
- Create a closed-loop system. A top-down approach to strategic IT planning doesn’t work. A plan must incorporate the objectives of governing bodies, such as the state legislature, city council and political leaders. It should also factor in constituent needs and requirements. This means establishing committees from various agencies and departmental functions and feeding information to a decision-making board.
- Emphasize executive sponsorship. Without support from top leaders, a strategic plan is doomed. It’s essential to keep groups on track, on schedule and focused on key issues. This begins in the CIO’s office or with another high-level administrator.
- Maintain flexibility. A strategic IT plan is a living, breathing document. As conditions and needs change — over weeks, months or years — it must evolve to suit the needs of the government body.
- Establish clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It’s essential that various committee members know what’s required. Clearly defined roles are an important start, but communication must continue throughout the planning process.
- Focus on strategic improvement not cost savings. Although many government organizations that develop a strategic plan slash costs, the ultimate goal is to become more focused and strategic by using equipment, resources and personnel more effectively. Use metrics and benchmarks to maximize investments and results