When Utah Budget Director John Nixon was approached about joining the administration of newly elected Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, he thought the idea was “a little bit crazy.”
Nixon certainly wasn’t looking for a new job -- least of all one in Michigan. His boss, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, had just won re-election and Nixon was settling his family into a beautiful new house outside of Salt Lake City. Two years earlier, the Pew Center on the States had named Utah the best managed state in the nation.
Michigan, on the other hand, was a mess. The American auto industry had nearly collapsed in 2009, and the state’s Rust-Belt economy was locked in a decade-long struggle to replace disappearing manufacturing jobs. The state was facing a $1.5 billion budget deficit.
Ultimately, though, taking part in a massive turnaround effort became too appealing to pass up. The kicker was that Nixon would head Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a super-agency that oversees all of the state’s financial, technology and administrative functions. “This really put the weight of the budget office behind administrative functions like technology to streamline government going forward,” Nixon says.
After just six weeks on the job, Nixon had rebalanced the state budget and helped Snyder fashion a sweeping tax-reform package that became law. But Nixon didn’t just cut. He launched a $2.5 million grant program to fund small but innovative IT projects. He also created a $5 million fund to promote shared services for local governments. “The concept was, ‘Let’s find money to make strategic investments in areas that are going to make us more competitive, more efficient and more effective,’” Nixon says.
With the state on firmer financial ground for 2013, Nixon locked $47 million into the base budget over the next five years to replace creaky state computer systems, including Michigan’s 30-year-old tax system and “archaic” financial applications. He also built an unusually productive partnership with state CIO David Behen, who spearheads Michigan’s new IT plan. Too often, Nixon says, budget directors and CIOs talk past one another. In Michigan, they’re firmly on the same page.
“I support technology as budget director because I know we’re never going to keep up with demands on state services without a strong IT infrastructure,” he says. “If we’re successful at this, we’ll be able to make further investments.”