State CIOs Tell Feds Like It Is

Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, state CIOs at NASCIO today called for the federal government to show some respect for states' own IT objectives before handing down federally funded initiatives; at the same time, VARs are summoned to act as soundpieces and push state initiatives through.

In an afternoon panel discussion, state representatives gave it to the federal government straight: Thank you for the well-intentioned IT initiatives and the associated funds, but let the states decide for themselves what takes priority.

"There are hundreds of midlevel bureaucrats...who see themselves as the guardian of federal funds," said James Dillon, CIO for the state of New York. "I think they are behind the times. A greater cooperative effort is needed."

State government walks a slippery slope as far as IT is concerned. On the one hand, it functions largely under its own budgets, its own legislation and its own IT plans. On the other hand, it shares in the universal objective to increase collaboration across all levels of government and develop enterprise architectures -- and they look to the federal government to fund much of those efforts.

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"Enterprise architecture efforts are under way at all levels," Dillon said. "The problem is that it's being handled horizontally, while funding flows vertically in stovepipe streams." Too often, he said, states identify issues, develop a standard, and are either stonewalled completely or delayed with procedural hodgepodge.

"It's disheartening when a state arrives at a standard, includes that standard in an RFP, then is told it must be bid on competitively," Dillon said. "There must be more trust. I am as able to drive a hard bargain with vendors as anyone; probably more than most. The [federal government's] hard line taken regarding the commingling of funds is out of date."

Furthermore, getting a tap on the shoulder from Uncle Sam demanding that attention be placed elsewhere disrupts the five-year plan that many states put in place.

"Problems we see are in timing -- not enough to properly plan ahead, and unwise spending as a result," said Don Buffum, materials management officer for the state of Mississippi. Juggling of initiatives leads to lack of manpower and expertise, and conflicting legislation. A state may require agencies to use a performance bond, for example, which guarantees performance and payment by the contractor to all subcontractors and material suppliers; the federal government could then come in and say performance bonds can't be used. "Whose rules do you go by? Are we able to adequately assess risk, or are we forced down paths not in our best interest?" That leaves the state initiative in a temporary halt, and the contractors unable to proceed -- or potentially get paid.

All that said, state CIOs do concede that federal initiatives come with the best of intentions -- but often without clear thought given to the underlying needs of the individual states.

"The cookie-cutter approach is too often used," Buffum said. "Federal government needs to reach out to the states, and states need to reach out to the cities and schools and agencies to make sure initiatives are not created in a vacuum."

And at the same time, integrators need to provide an unbiased view, reporting what's best for states and how all levels of government can work together to make it happen.

"Systems integrators are the ones that see and work across states and agencies, and are, therefore, able to identify opportunities that can cut across these stovepipes," said Dan Chenok, vice president and director of policy and management strategies at Fairfax, Va.-based SRA International. "The Office of Management and Budget loves business cases. If you can point out the benefits of flexibility, you can go a long way."