Decentralizing Government's IT

Florida wants to cut its technology costs. But is the state going about it all wrong?
June 2017
Blaise Ingoglia gives a speech
Florida state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia is the sponsor of a bill that would strip away the state's central control over IT. AP Images
Tod Newcombe
By Tod Newcombe  |  Columnist

These days, you hear a lot about disruptive technologies -- how ride-hailing apps have revolutionized the taxi industry, how Facebook has altered the way we consume news or how mobile devices have changed how we watch TV. Now another technology is behind a decision to disrupt Florida’s IT authority. A bill introduced in the state’s House of Representatives encourages state agencies to individually buy storage and processing power from cloud vendors.And that’s only one element of the legislation, which would completely reorganize the state’s IT authority and strip away its central control over IT.

The bill won’t become law this year: For now, legislators opted to fund the state’s central IT agency as is. But the legislation’s introduction reflects a growing problem with how expensive IT has become and the slow pace of change within state government when it comes to adopting new technologies. Florida state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who sponsored the bill, says the reorganization would give agencies opportunities to pursue new, commercially available cloud services while changing the existing business model for government IT, which has become unsustainable.

But Eric Larson, the state’s interim CIO, says the bill would go about fixing these problems in all the wrong ways. In fact, he argues that the legislation wouldn’t cut costs in the long term, would introduce unnecessary risks around cybersecurity and, most important, would balkanize the state’s IT environment at a time when most organizations -- public and private sector -- are moving toward a more centralized approach. “You need a focal point for IT that exists outside the state agencies,” says Larson.

The proposed change came as a bit of a surprise -- mainly because of its source. “It’s unusual for legislators to get involved with overhauling IT,” says Charles Gerhards, former Pennsylvania CIO and director of the Government Technology Institute at Harrisburg University. While legislators may express concern when problems occur, “they typically don’t have the passion for reorganizing and overhauling what is a complex and complicated system.” Indeed, states run some of the biggest computer systems in government for Medicaid, human services, finance, criminal justice programs and much more.

Florida clearly isn’t the only state to try a new approach to how it buys and runs technology. A decade ago, a handful of states, most notably Virginia, decided to get out of the business of running their own IT systems and to outsource the entire operation to technology companies. But those types of big overhauls are rare (and the results have been mixed).

Today, many see cloud computing as the panacea to what ails government technology. Why buy or build large computer systems, the argument goes, when you can rent servers from Amazon or Microsoft?

But Larson and others see some real problems with the proposed approach. First, as agencies leave the state’s data center and pursue their own solutions in the cloud, they leave behind an infrastructure that has fixed costs. Second, letting agencies follow their own IT choices fragments a technology environment. For instance, Larson points out that Florida has been working on an enterprise-wide approach to user identity and authentication. This would simplify how citizens and businesses interact with the state. Such a universal method for identifying someone becomes much harder when you no longer have a central authority to figure out how to link together the different systems.

Gerhards has an even more pessimistic view of what the future would look like if agencies could pick and choose what services they use. “Once a centralized IT system breaks,” he says, “it takes a long time to put it back together.”