In early January, one day after his inauguration, new Vermont Gov. Phil Scott promoted Darwin Thompson to the position of new state CIO and commissioner of the Department of Information and Innovation.
“He asked me to stay for continuity reasons,” says Thompson, who previously served for five and a half years as the department’s deputy commissioner. “I helped write a transition plan for the department and wrote a state IT strategy that bridged the gap between the old and new administration.”
While the White House transition of power garnered much of the nation’s attention as President Donald Trump took office, that same transition happened across the country at state level as new governors took the helm in eight states, including Vermont, Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina.
State CIOs play a key role in assisting with the transition, whether they remain in their posts from the previous administration or step into the role for the first time as part of the new administration. CIOs help new governors and their transition teams get up to speed on the state’s technology landscape and revise the state’s IT strategy to meet the new governor’s priorities.
New Leadership Means New IT Priorities
In Vermont, Thompson’s institutional knowledge of state IT operations allowed him to hit the ground running.
Simultaneously, Thompson is providing tech guidance to state agencies and keeping IT services up and running while implementing Gov. Scott’s new IT priorities. The new priorities include bolstering cybersecurity training and modernizing applications, such as Vermont’s procurement system, for which an upgrade could allow the state to operate more efficiently and improve citizen services.
After the election, Thompson consulted with other state IT administrators and laid out a transition plan for the new administration: a four-page memo to the governor-elect and his transition team about current IT projects and potential areas of improvement.
“It introduced the transition team to opportunities that could make state government more effective,” he says.
In the memo, Thompson highlighted the state’s ongoing server virtualization and application consolidation effort, which has proven successful. It also proposed elevating the CIO to a cabinet-level position, so the state’s top IT leader could have an equal seat at the table with other agency secretaries.
After taking office, Gov. Scott not only agreed to make the CIO a cabinet-level position, he wrote an executive order asking the state legislature to approve the creation of a new IT organization, known as the Agency of Digital Services, which would eliminate the current Department of Information and Innovation and overhaul the way Vermont manages IT.
The existing department currently provides common IT services to only 60 percent of state government, and only 25 percent of the state’s 400 IT employees work for the central IT organization. The new Agency of Digital Services would consolidate IT services and all IT employees in the executive branch under one umbrella.
“We think it’s an excellent idea,” Thompson says. “Gov. Scott is looking for opportunities to make state government more effective, and this can eliminate silos, consolidate common services and reduce waste and redundancy.”
The state legislature will decide by April 17 whether to create the new agency. Thompson has let it be known that he’s interested in becoming the secretary of the new agency, but in the meantime, he’s busy running IT operations and helping the administration, including new Chief Innovation Officer John Quinn, organize and plan the new agency.
Under Gov. Scott’s direction of making government more effective, Thompson is also taking a more agile approach to development and revamping the request-for-proposal process to get more innovative proposals. Instead of being too descriptive with detailed requirements, the state will now describe its IT problems and let vendors come up with ideas, he says.
“We have a good, solid team and we’re off to a great start,” he says.
Shared State IT Vision in Indiana
Like other appointed administrators, state CIOs face uncertain futures whenever new governors are elected. But, in Indiana, newly elected Gov. Eric Holcomb asked Dewand Neely to stay on as state CIO largely because they share an IT vision.
For example, both want to improve cybersecurity, create better online services for citizens and build an environment for state agencies to innovate faster and more cost-effectively, which translates to better services, Neely says. As a result, it was a good fit.
“The new governor and I see eye-to-eye on his key pillars that he’s laid out. I think he saw our efforts were in sync and that I’d be a good fit to help him from an IT perspective,” says Neely, who first became state CIO in October 2015.
Tips on Governor Transitions: Tell It Like It Is
Despite administration changes, state CIOs can help keep their positions by creating good working relationships with other state agencies and providing good IT guidance to help those agencies find solutions for their business problems, Neely says. The leaders of other state agencies can be your biggest champions if you position yourself as a good business partner and put yourself “in the agencies’ shoes” when approaching IT issues, he explains.
“If you do that and prove your value, they will speak up for you, and it kind of helps your story,” he says.
Vermont’s Thompson views this partnership as two way. When writing a transition plan, he says it’s important to make it a collaborative effort and get the opinions of other IT colleagues. It’s also important to be honest by explaining to the transition team what’s working and what could be improved.
“Tell it like it is,” he says. “Tell the good news and explain what is working well, but also what opportunities we have and how we can do it better.”