The Fix-IT Man

It seems everyone wants a piece of John Conley -- even if it's virtual. As Colorado's deputy chief information officer, he's been asked to help...
by | January 1, 2009 AT 2:00 AM

It seems everyone wants a piece of John Conley -- even if it's virtual. As Colorado's deputy chief information officer, he's been asked to help manage a massive and complex consolidation of the state government's information technology. Not surprisingly, department CIOs and IT employees have lots of questions and concerns as the restructuring effort gets underway. On a warm November day, CIOs and other IT specialists from various state agencies are crammed into a small room in a government building, peering at Conley's boyish-looking face on the small screen of a video telephone. Conley is helping to test phones that can switch seamlessly from land lines with video capability to mobile devices and back. The goal is to optimize communications among members of this group, who now will be working closely together on information technology.

Speaking from his office a few blocks away, Conley says he will come over to meet with them. The screen goes dark but his voice continues to fill the room -- until, finally, he walks into the room. The phone test is deemed a success, and Conley sits down to lead a discussion of even more pressing business: Besides using newfangled telecom capabilities, how will they continue to make progress on IT consolidation? And get it funded properly.

Bill Ritter proposed during his 2006 campaign for governor to streamline and enhance state government using improved technologies. After his election, one of his first moves was to hire a CIO named Mike Locatis away from Denver's municipal government, where he had successfully consolidated 20 IT departments and developed a comprehensive 311 system. As state CIO, Locatis then brought on board Conley, who was 29 years old at the time, to carry out the details of his vision for centralizing the state's IT.

Colorado, though, isn't exactly on the cutting edge when it comes to this task. Rather, it is part of a second wave of states to seek IT efficiencies, so it has the advantage of being able to look to pioneers such as Michigan, Missouri, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia for helpful lessons and potential pitfalls. That doesn't make the task failsafe or easy. As Locatis points out, it took 25 years to create Colorado's disparate, stovepiped system. The new Office of Information Technology, which he heads, has been given four years to dismantle it. But while developing its own unique plan, Colorado could pick and choose aspects from a handful of state consolidation models.

Michigan, for example, started centralizing IT in 2001, under an executive order from then-Governor John Engler. The state consolidated all its resources into the Michigan Department of Information Technology, which focuses on core IT service delivery, improving efficiencies and reducing costs. If there is an IT-consolidation finish line, Michigan appears to be the state closest to crossing it.

Virginia took a different tack. The state contracted with private companies to build a data backup center and a facility for its IT agency, and to construct an enterprise resource planning system. More than half the state's IT workers became private employees under the deals. Although the partnerships seem to be working for Virginia, few other states seem likely to try something similar. Colorado's state-employee-centered approach has more in common with the Michigan model.

But all consolidations are risky. The research company Gartner says most state IT consolidation efforts are failing. One in Texas, for example, recently fell into trouble.

From Many to One

In mid-2007, the first order of business for Colorado's newly formed Governor's Office of Information Technology (OIT) was to bring in a third party to do a statewide technology assessment. The review found that the state had wasted money, been unable to deliver enterprise-wide tech services and lacked an overall IT strategy. Even worse, large -- and very public -- project failures over the years had given the state's management of technology a black eye. Most notorious were botched systems for vehicle titling and registration; taxes; voter registration and election administration; benefits management and unemployment insurance. The state pulled the plug on some; others failed to deliver as promised.

Overall, IT was riddled with inefficiencies: Functions were replicated in each department, with separate help desks, network security, purchasing and contracting. In addition to agencies duplicating one another's efforts, they also were losing out on volume discounts by purchasing separately.

The departments defended their activities, saying they were as good as they could be. Conley doubts that claim, if only because he feels that it was impossible for 13 agencies to perform at their best with a total state IT budget of only $18 million. Well-funded agencies were better off than departments that had suffered cuts. Sharing services could help pull the worse-off agencies out of their IT morass.

Nevertheless, IT employees had resisted even single-agency consolidation efforts over the years. Leah Lewis, CIO for the Department of Natural Resources, says her agency unsuccessfully tried to consolidate seven times during her 16 years at the department. But the Office of Information Technology now wields a powerful weapon: the law.

Last year was an acid test for consolidation: getting major legislation passed. Ritter, a Democrat, served as consolidation's champion at the Capitol and Locatis attended multiple hearings and legislative briefing sessions. A Republican senator introduced a consolidation bill with 74 co-sponsors. Legislators approved it 92 to 2. As a result, all department CIOs now report to Locatis. "Someone is telling us we all have to play in the sandbox," says James Lynn, IT manager for the Department of Public Safety.

Another bill dissolved an IT project-oversight commission made up of private- and public-sector members. The commission didn't always have a comprehensive understanding what was going on, in OIT's view. And its methods made agency personnel uncomfortable, focusing on holding them publicly accountable, instead of working alongside them to help keep projects on track. The result was that agencies often were hesitant to admit to project problems until it was too late. It was a "self-conscious" system, Lynn says. "The environment wasn't conducive for putting one's cards on the table."

Now, in its place, are seven governance committees made up of business and IT professionals from logically-grouped departments, formed to provide oversight, improve how projects are delivered and help with their success. Locatis convenes and chairs the committees, which are active only when projects are underway. IT experts sit down with agency business professionals and collaboratively manage the projects, looking together at budgets and timetables and adhering to Locatis' IT vision.

The governance committees also serve as advisory boards to the technology office. That helps OIT manage all the projects on its plate, and helps agencies get funding -- never an easy feat. Once OIT identifies what's working with a project, staffers share that knowledge with other departments.

A Tax Division project was the first to go through "robust" oversight. In a highly unusual move, the technology office asked John Vecchiarelli, senior director of taxation in the Revenue Department, if he would spend at least half his time managing the Colorado Integrated Tax Architecture (CITA) project. The IT office had to negotiate with the revenue agency's executive director for approval.

The possibility that Vecchiarelli could be out on a limb if the project fails -- or that his disappearance from his regular duties could make him seem dispensable -- caused him to be "a little nervous," he concedes. "Anyone would worry." But he also viewed the assignment as a challenge. Change is desperately needed to provide good tax services to citizens. The old system, which dates back to 1950, had grown grown fragmented around managing 13 different tax types. One overhaul attempt in the 1990s had failed.

Lawmakers on Board

At least in the early stages of a consolidation effort, legislators still need to be persuaded to fund large IT projects. One of Conley's many tasks is to explain to them why huge sums are justified, without engaging in fiscal game-playing.

At a weekly meeting of department CIOs, someone complains that higher ups often cut the estimated costs of IT projects indiscriminately. Conley asks that they inform him right away when that happens. "Your 'bat phone' is directly to me," he says. He promises to take up such matters directly with executive directors, legislators or anyone else who changes IT cost estimates without understanding the consequences.

Moreover, Conley asserts, legislators or agency executives must understand that if they cut funding, the scope of the project must be cut, too. "What we will not have happen any longer is trying with pennies on the dollar to give them the systems they think that they're getting when there's no way under the sun I can deliver them."

Last year, lawmakers discussed not fully funding the second phase of the five-phase integrated CITA project. Conley said that if they short-changed the funding, OIT would abandon the project altogether. He doesn't think that legislators liked that answer, but they must have understood it: OIT got full funding for that phase. Conley says he'll take the same approach if they attempt to cut funding for the next phase, because he refuses to inflate project costs by, say, 20 percent, anticipating that funding committees will slash 20 percent.

Legislators are just one constituency Conley meets with to keep consolidation efforts on track. He is out and about constantly, attending 30 to 40 meetings a week and working 12-hour days. Home base is an office with a view of the nearby gold-domed Capitol. The lights in his office are usually off. "Any disaster looks better in the dark," he deadpans. Actually, it's to prevent migraine headaches.

He also helps Locatis handle state employees' concerns about IT centralization -- from top department officials who face a loss of employees and less control over their budgets to the end users who don't understand the complexity of the consolidation. They see technology as point and click without thinking about the underlying infrastructure. "If you're not involved, you think it's a Sunday drive to Best Buy," Conley says.

He and Locatis also meet regularly with the line IT workers and their union representative. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, he returns from a last-minute meeting at the Capitol, stuffs his laptop into a day pack, grabs a packet of Sweet Tarts and heads out the door to union headquarters across town. The meeting gets underway promptly at 6 p.m. One attendee wants to know when all of the state's 1,100 IT employees will become part of OIT. He tells them he doesn't have a definite date but will keep them informed. Someone else has complaints about an employee advisory council that is meant to help workers with the massive changes. Conley reassures employees that they will figure out together how to improve the support system. As the meeting wraps up, he puts in a plug for consolidation's benefits.

The communication efforts by top IT officials are essential during this time of transition. Locatis and Conley, along with Todd Olson, OIT's chief operating officer, and Ron Huston, its enterprise architect, visited with employees around the state in more than a dozen "town hall" meetings with agency staffers to explain the consolidation plan, listen to questions and concerns, and build support for their undertaking.

Most of the initial unhappiness stemmed from employees' fears that they'd lose their jobs. But they're also apprehensive about the changes and "the unknown." By holding the town hall meetings prior to the consolidation legislation being introduced, employees could help "build the story" with the technology office, Conley says, as the legislation was being drafted. Over time, IT employees have come around -- some willingly, others grudgingly.

Paul Lewin, the CIO for the Corrections Department, believes many workers stand to gain under the new structure. His IT staff had run out of challenges because the public-safety network is built out and now requires just maintenance. "There are no new frontiers," he says. Under a centralized system, his staff likely will get the opportunity to work for other departments, and will be motivated to innovate and "re-prove" themselves.

In general, the consolidation offers a chance for people, policies and equipment to "reset." The result is expected to be efficiencies and savings. So far, after nearly two years in existence, OIT has two major successes under its belt: an election system that improved upon one that limped along during the election four years ago and the tax system. Under Vecchiarelli's management, the first phase of the tax project went live in early November: Systems for severance, estate and tax credits rolled out on time and within budget. Vecchiarelli says he "would be lying" if he claimed there aren't any gripes. But they've been manageable. The next two phases are income tax and sales tax.

Those are good early signs, but the consolidation effort is hardly assured of success. No matter what happens in the next several years, Conley declares the state will not go back to its fragmented, decentralized ways. Everything has been built in LEGO fashion, he says. "The foundation doesn't crumble if we don't add another block." But he also understands there are many hurdles yet to come. "I don't recommend the faint of heart take this on. But it's the right thing to do."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |