The technology staff for Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County recently deployed a sophisticated new piece of hardware - a collaboration tool, known to many carnival-goers as a "dunk tank." Its first victim: new chief information officer Shital Patel.
How Patel found herself getting soaked in a dunk tank on a 90-degree day at her agency's office picnic is a story that explains a lot about the challenges and tensions that face the leaders of many government IT teams these days.
Last July's festivities were part of an effort to build ties between Patel's municipal technology staff and the army of contractors that work side by side with them to serve more than 50 city and county agencies. The joint Indianapolis and Marion County government is among those that have contracted out the majority of their technology operations. Only about 40 of the 180 or so people who work for Patel are on her payroll. The rest mainly work for two contractors. A local company, Daniels & Associates Inc., provides applications support, and Northrop Grumman Information Technology handles most of the agency's day-to-day functions - maintaining a helpdesk, managing distributed services and providing network and server support for 6,500 users.
All of those contractors and their families were welcome at the IT staff picnic in Broad Ripple Park last summer. That was just a few months after Patel took over as CIO and only 14 months after she joined the Information Services Agency to be chief financial officer. Patel had previously spent nearly four years at the Indianapolis Department of Public Works managing financial issues.
The financial experience turned out to be good preparation for a job that involves managing contracts and business relationships as much as overseeing complex technology projects. Almost as soon as her appointment was formalized in March 2006, Patel was deep in contract negotiations with senior Northrop Grumman executives.
The most contentious issues involved specific service-level requirements, such as the number of computer moves, installations and upgrades; performance on helpdesk calls; and the scope of a problematic cross-agency technology inventory. Both sides made concessions, and the contract was amended with Northrop agreeing to $2.7 million in refunds and credits. That pleased the Indianapolis-Marion Information Technology Board, the panel of senior city and county officials to whom Patel reports.
With financial and contractual issues addressed, both sides set out to make sure the working relationship was on sound footing. Patel met more frequently with senior company officials, who brought in new managers and agreed to provide additional resources in Indianapolis. "As with any new contract, we had some growing pains," Patel says. "We got past that, and we now have a good relationship."
Patel also wanted to make the lines between her employees and their contractor colleagues disappear as much as possible. Soon after Patel became CIO, she changed the format of her office's monthly reports to the city-county IT board. Instead of her employees and contractors making separate reports, Patel made a single document and presentation. More recently, she set up joint employee-contractor teams to meet regularly with clients in other city and county agencies.
As the working relationship improved, so did the tenor of the IT board's questions, especially about the Northrop Grumman contract. "They were facing some tough questions from the board," Patel says of the period before last summer. "Now
Northrop Grumman are making most of their service levels and even receiving specific and public praise from the board in recent months."
The office picnic was a way to make sure that all of her contractors were hearing that encouragement, too. As the head of a government agency that has outsourced a large part of its operations, Patel knew that her ability to meet her goals as chief information officer would depend heavily on her contractors' success at meeting theirs. The dunking booth may have been the perfect device to send that message.
In addition to Patel, some of the city-county's senior tech managers, key Northrop Grumman people and even an IT board member were among those who agreed to be dunked. The main purpose of having the tank at the picnic was to help raise hundreds of dollars for an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children. But for Patel, climbing into the dunking booth was also a humbling way to remind her team, staff and contractors alike, that they were all in it together.