Boston accent: Massachusetts state CIO John Letchford

By GovTechReview Staff
Thursday, 21 November, 2013


What would you do if your IT budget was arbitrarily slashed by 15 percent overnight? Welcome to the life of Massachusetts CIO John Letchford. State CIOs have a chequered history Budget restrictions were nothing new for emergency funding to avoid service in Australia, where short tenures and regularly changing IT strategies have made it hard to ensure continuity of leadership or of purpose. But if you think it’s hard here, spare a thought for the US, where the large number of states, fierce political agendas, competition for budgets and siloed reporting lines have raised the degree of difficulty substantially. John Letchford has been sitting at the coalface of this challenge ever since he came into the role of CIO for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (the state’s full, official name) in 2010, capping off a variety of IT management roles within the state dating back to 2004 – including being appointed as deputy CIO from February 2008.JohnLetchford Letchford is responsible for elucidating and executing a broad strategy for an IT organisation to underpin a $US35.2 billion state budget that has, as in most places, been subject to significant scrutiny and political pressure focused less on IT outcomes and more on black-and-white, bottom-line economics. Letchford, a UK-born administrator who received his Master of Science in Information Technology at the University of York but left the UK in 1990. From there, he pursued a private-sector path that took him to Belgium, China, Florida and then Boston, the administrative centre of Massachusetts and the political, financial and cultural hub for its 6.5 million residents. Soon after commencing his first term in 2009, governor Deval Patrick passed Massachusetts Executive Order 532 – a systems-consolidation manifesto entitled Enhancing the Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Executive Department’s Information Technology Systems – it set in motion a massive, sweeping change program, called the IT Infrastructure Consolidation Program (ITICP), that became even more pressured when the legislature arbitrarily cut 15% from the IT budget. The IT organisation slid into a $US42m deficit, which was recently supplemented when the governor pushed through $US10m in issues and retrenchments among the state’s 1650 IT workers. “As a percentage of total budget, we have one of the lowest operating IT budgets in the country,” Letchford says. “Being optimistic, I’d say our total budget is around $US500m, which is around 1.7% of total spending. Most state governments are around 2.5%.” Low IT spend isn’t always a bad thing: it could indicate extreme operational efficiency just as easily as it could reflect chronic underfunding. Although efficiency has improved in recent years, Letchford says the latter and not the former basically applies in this case. Jumping silos So, how does one execute a coherent IT strategy on a declining budget while simultaneously driving major transformation and juggling the demands of a bevy of interested stakeholders? It’s a skill that Letchford has had to master, quickly – and from within an extensive operational and reporting structure rather than atop it. In Massachusetts, despite an overreaching portfolio, the state CIO sits several levels away from the governor, buried within one of eight key executive branches. Each of these portfolios – which include Administration and Finance (A&F); Health and Human Services; Education; Energy and Environmental Affairs; Public Safety; Housing and Economic Development; Labor and Workforce Development; and Transportation – is headed by its own secretary. Letchford’s IT Division (ITD) sits within the A&G office, so he reports directly to A&F secretary Jay Gonzales. To execute IT strategy, however, he meets with agency representatives across all eight executive secretariats – as well as a number of Commonwealth staff in strategic IT-related positions.Mass-Capitol “Every Monday morning I chair a meeting with eight CIOs, who have a dotted line to me, and other people like the Commonwealth CISO, CTO and COO,” Letchford explains. “We work to set security standards, technology directions, and strategy across all eight departments within the executive arm.” To make things more interesting, each agency has its own IT budget – and each naturally thinks its initiatives are the most important for the state. In the past, the lack of inter-silo transparency was a given – but after the consolidation of budgets, Letchford says, “now we know what we’ve got. It’s all out there.” Increased visibility has changed Letchford’s spending priorities in recent years. ITICP,for example, has driven major investments in ITD’s services capability as it standardises and centralises the management of Commonwealth data centres, networks, desktops, help desks, applications, and even enterprise-wide services like the Mass.gov employee and citizen Web portal. Consolidating individual services has been an ongoing effort for Letchford’s team, with around 80% of email now consolidated onto a single system; all users consolidated onto a single geographical information system (GIS); and a transition towards charging for corporate services like payroll, administration, time and attendance, general ledger, and so on. As these systems are nailed down, Letchford has been working to exploit them to standardise other services, such as the issuing of liquor and other state licenses. “Instead of doing the same type of business process a hundred times, we’re starting to look at this a bit more strategically,” Letchford says. “But it’s very difficult to do when your budget is being stripped.” Looking westward As well as working towards functional consolidation to meet the demands of Executive Order 532, Letchford’s team has been working to consolidate the state’s data centre facilities to just two sites. The first, an existing facility in Chelsea, in Boston’s inner north, was built in 1995 and is both showing its age and nearly at capacity; its power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating is pushing towards 2.0, high by today’s standards. A new facility in Springfield – Massachusetts’ second city, located some 130km west of Boston – will improve that by providing a backup data centre with a design PUE of just 1.29. The new facility has enough built-in redundancy that Letchford says it would qualify for Tier 3 certification – “except that we don’t yet have funding for a new generator”, he says wryly. Among the projects involving the new facility have been a storage consolidation that saw 23 storage arrays combined into just eleven after a streamlining and deduplication effort: “without impacting anything we’re getting double the storage, so that’s huge,” he explains. “More importantly, we can use it for replication.” Similar projects will boost efficiency in other areas, while the savings from the lower-power design will cut facilities support costs substantially. “This is the last data centre that we’re ever going to build,” Letchford says. “The good news is that there’s so much low-hanging fruit that I don’t have to worry about people asking why we’re building it.” Selling (and staffing) the cloud As in every sector of business and government, cloud computing has gradually asserted itself as an important force in Massachusetts’ forward movement. Widespread nervousness amongst non-technical legislators, employees, and even unions – for whom the cloud represents a potential threat to job security – makes any discussion about cloud computing a tentative one, but Letchford knows there’s no backing away from it if the state is to boost efficiency in the long term. “The first thing we have to do is to try and take the fear away,” he explains. “We need to lay out a vision of what it’s going to look like. It’s not a vision where everything is in the cloud, or where everything is internally managed. It’s a mishmash – a combination of hybrid solutions, SaaS verticals, PaaS horizontals, and so on. Basically, my agency needs to go from offering only systems-administration type services, to being a broker of services.” He expects around 80 percent of ITD’s cloud-related efforts will be focused on integration and data security, which has proved to be particularly challenging because state agencies are often bound to “rules that make it challenging to do things in the cloud.” US Federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Services, Department of Health, Department of Homeland Security and others “still do things in verticals, and they’re all incompatible with each other,” he says. “Because they manage themselves in silos they don’t have to deal with these problems – but the state government is where all these things come together, so they’re the ones we have to deal with.” This creates additional complexity in the deployment of state services: for example, while state revenue agencies naturally need to maintain information about taxpayers, protection of that data by federal guidelines puts often onerous restrictions on states’ ability to store and handle that information – even if it’s been encrypted and is unreadable. These requirements may be ameliorated by the evolving Federal Risk and Authorization Management (FedRAMP) program, which is working to standardise security assessment, authorisation and continuous monitoring for cloud products across various levels of government. But for now, the dichotomy between state and federal information-management regimes remains a palpable reality for Letchford. One of Letchford’s biggest challenges remains the acquisition of appropriate skills – which is becoming increasingly difficult in a labour market that, as in Australia, has seen IT-related university enrolments plummeting in recent years. With 40 percent of his staff expected to retire within the next ten years – “it’s a silver tsunami” – Letchford is keenly aware that funding is going to be a major impediment to replacing them. “We’re losing people and because people just aren’t graduating with those degrees, demand is high,” he explains. “When we’re offering state salaries, I don’t see how I’m going to be able, ever, to compete with the private sector.” Another challenging issue comes from the high unionisation of the IT staff: with more than 90 percent of staff unionised, Letchford not only finds it difficult to retrench staff, but faces great pressure to replace departing staff with similarly-skilled people. “This is how the organisation is evolving,” Letchford explains. “We likely will need fewer administrators, and fewer people in technologies like the mainframe. We’ll need more service managers and data architects.” “The way I’m positioning it with the unions is that we have to manage it with finesse, as opposed to just blindly arguing with each other saying ‘it’s not going to happen’ – and then wondering why we can’t do our jobs anymore.” With future IT paradigms requiring expensive new skill sets, the need to carefully manage skills turnover limits the speed at which change can be realistically driven throughout the organisation. This makes it a long-term rather than a short-term play – which isn’t always compatible with the desire of Letchford’s superiors to be able to show quick wins and cost savings. “The way I sell this is that we absolutely need to embrace cloud, and outsourcing, and privatisation, and commodity type stuff,” he says, “but we need to be prepared to do it at a pace of natural attrition, and to keep employees’ interests in mind. They can’t expect any quick wins. I try to explain that they’ve got to stop looking at [IT change] as a savings thing. We’re not agile enough now, and the cloud will give that to us.” The customer imperative They may occupy much of his time, but procedural, technological, policy and people considerations aren’t the only things that keep Letchford busy. At a higher level, he says, all this change works together to support what he calls a “simple premise: that you need to have customer relationship management for citizens.” Many government bodies have long struggled with the idea that they need to become customer-service organisations. And while social-media nous is helping improve the immediacy of citizen contact (see page 18), Letchford believes it’s crucial for governments to recognise and address the needs of citizen stakeholders including residents, businesses, local governments, and visitors. “You need to have a single kind of CRM mechanism,” he says. “And while I can sell them the best technical solutions in the world, if the business process and organisational construct that government is built around doesn’t change, I’m wasting my time with technologies. And if I’m only a technology person trying to tell the business they have to change the way they operate, it’s not going to happen.” Recognising this fact, Letchford’s role has recently taken an interesting turn. While some government bodies have tried to boost technological buy-in by promoting the CIO to a higher role where he or she can be seen to have higher authority, in March the governor took a different approach with Executive Order 542, which created a new Governor’s Council for Innovation. Leading this effort is a new executive – given the title of GIO (Government Innovation Officer) – whose remit is heavily technology- focused but includes a more customer service-focused view than Letchford’s. The GIO will report to both Gonzales and the governor’s office, liaising with Massachusetts innovators to develop strategies for resource-effective innovation. His official remit includes accountability for improving internal government efficiencies “and using cross-boundary coordination to improve the experience of outside stakeholders with the Commonwealth’; governing the execution of “high impact business change projects”; monitoring the cost and savings impacts of business change projects; and reporting on the business value aspects of ITICP. Rather than adding to Letchford’s already- full plate, the appointment of the GIO will foster innovation across the entire government. Letchford believes this will allow him to continue providing technology leadership while giving the GIO extra clout driving the new customer-focused agenda. Regular brainstorming sessions with recognised Massachusetts innovators, and a statewide innovation competition (#MassInnovation), are among the initiatives helping the governor compile a mutually acceptable common vision of the state’s future. Another is Commonwealth Performance Accountability and Transparency (CPAT), which will encompass areas including existing open- data initiatives, new efforts at improving mobile data access, and efforts to improve publishing of government information as Web services. “Instead of being perceived as a technology driven initiative, we’re taking the transparency part of that program and moving our open data initiatives under it,” Letchford says. “It sits with us today, but ultimately more and more of it will sit in the cloud. We’re at a crossroads where there’s a genuine interest to really do this right.” – David Braue This feature originally ran in the September 2012 issue of Government Technology Review.
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