A few months ago, Jim Bender, a friend of mine who is the communications director for Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), asked me if I knew of anyone who is competent and knowledgeable about technology and would be interested in serving on a special committee.
The committee, the Speaker’s Task Force on State information Technology Failures, was formed to investigate the state government’s recent IT failures and identify solutions to prevent similar mistakes down the road.
The problem is that the state has been making flawed purchasing decisions by buying software and other technology that does not perform the intended tasks. The mistakes have wasted more than $170 million in taxpayer dollars, according to a recent report by the Legislative Audit Bureau.
To their credit, Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) and Rep. Phil Montgomery (R-Ashwaubenon) wanted some input from the private sector on the committee to help the state make better technology investments.
I recommended that they put Kirk Strong, a principal at Smart Interactive Media, Mequon, on the committee, and they did.
So, the committee conducted several meetings over the past couple of months. It was an eye-opening experience for the private sector people. Ultimately, the task force members agreed that the state government needs a chief information officer (CIO) with enough authority and accountability to oversee the state’s investments in technology.
Bender, who has become the go-to guy for technology issues in the Assembly, tells me he is optimistic that some of the best practices from the private sector will be embraced by the state government.
However, one obstacle that hangs over anything in Madison is the lack of bipartisan cooperation. And a second obstacle is convincing the entrenched bureaucrats in the executive branch to change the way they do their jobs.
When I circled back to ask Strong how the task force went, he responded by e-mail. His response provided an enlightened, inside glimpse – with a healthy dose of cynicism – about how our state government works. With Strong’s permission, here are some excerpts from his e-mail response:
"A number of the people on the committee thought that the state needed a CIO. They basically thought that their needed to be someone in charge to set the culture and protocol of how everything should run IT-wise in Madison. I understand the desire to have someone "in charge"" who can be "held accountable," but unless that person is allowed to make choices free of political considerations and appointments, then how is that going to make things better? If it’s a political appointment and that person is accused of acting or doing things that are bad, will it be chalked up as a political headhunting? And in end, what would happen? Some people may or may not lose their jobs, the state spends more money and our taxes increase. I don’t thing an IT Czar is the only answer.
"It’s not necessarily bureaucracy or a title that would make things work, you needed to have the right people. People are the ones who make ethical choices as to how to handle the people’s money – not a position, department or title. A Lordhigh Executioner is only good if he/she isn’t corrupt and has the people’s wellbeing on his/her mind at all times. These are not easy to come by and they don’t rise to this level of caring upon being given the title.
"After all was said and done, the best things that came out of the task force was a renewed emphasis on how these types of projects should be planned, budgeted and to some degree monitored. Most everyone agreed that if the planning and budgeting was done correctly, that would give us a great start. There really was nothing new under the sun other than the state wasn’t really using best businesses practices to achieve their goals.
"You could write a book on how the state, which is the largest employer in the state, doesn’t follow the most basic quality improvement procedures that are now commonplace at most mid-sized companies. Hell, we even have quality improvement procedures at SIM (Smart Interactive Media). The state does have laws, but have you ever tried to make sense of some of the legislation?
"Does the state have a mission statement? Do different departments have mission statements?
"So I walk away … happy to serve … try to help … but in the end did we make a difference? Maybe? It all depends upon what the committee members put forward as law."
Steve Jagler is executive editor of Small Business Times.