A new place to call home
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Jun 30, 2003
About two years ago, when Val Asbedian was the strategic planning director for Massachusetts' information technology division, he bumped into the state House of Representatives' clerk and the speaker's chief of staff at a conference. Over coffee, his colleagues complained about the state's outdated legislative bill-tracking system and discussed the need to replace it.
"And I commented, 'When you want to do something, why don't you hire the executive branch to do it for you, to be your project manager as opposed to hiring somebody from the outside?' " Asbedian recalled. He told them the way he suggested would cost less.
So Asbedian, who developed a cadre of project managers whom he called an internal consulting organization, helped the legislature write a request for proposals, conducted a business case analysis and interviews, and issued a recommendation. Last November, a vendor was selected to develop the system for $4 million.
It wasn't clear, however, how the system would be operated when it was complete. Asbedian told the legislature that its staff didn't have the necessary system administration skills.
"I had been advising them that they need to take a look at how they're organized so that they can manage the system," he said. His work was enough for House leaders to offer him the position of chief information officer in November 2002.
For Asbedian, working with 160 representatives and their staffs is a challenge. He is not exactly unfamiliar to state lawmakers, having testified in front of them several times since 1997 regarding Year 2000 problems and IT funding issues.
But he sees his CIO role as taking on new directions. One is the management and operation of technology within the legislature, which entails modernizing systems and providing better technological tools, such as e-mail, to help lawmakers with their duties.
It's nothing esoteric, Asbedian said, just a need that must be met. "I'm very interested in what the House is doing and the challenge of instituting an organizational structure," he said. "But the other part of it is having a place for legislators to go to get advice or counsel as policy is being developed."
He added that he and his staff can provide advice on issues ranging from privacy and security to e-government. "It may not start that way, but I see it over the long run as being a place where there's advice that can be shared with policy- makers in their decision-making process."
"Companies don't want to settle in places where they can't use technology to be efficient," Asbedian said. "By judiciously managing technology from a policy-making perspective, you encourage or at least facilitate businesses to thrive and to be successful, which is what you want."
It's unclear how many individuals who work for state legislatures have the title of CIO. Pam Greenberg, program principal for the National Conference of State Legislatures said that although it is a common job title within executive branches, it's not often found in legislative branches. Most individuals have the title of information systems director or something similar.
"In terms of having a CIO as a policy adviser in addition to running the computer systems, in general, I guess Massachusetts would be more unusual than others," she said, although the organization has not surveyed state legislatures about such roles.
It isn't the first time Asbedian has been a pioneer. He worked for NASA in the late 1960s, helping with the Apollo 11 mission. In the early 1970s, Asbedian, who has engineering degrees from the City College of New York and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a math degree from Adelphi University in New York, helped develop a national interchange for credit card authorization.
He also worked as a systems specialist for Shawmut National Bank and then Computer Sciences Corp. as an Air Force contractor at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. In the mid-1990s he met Louis Gutierrez, Massachusetts' first CIO, who offered him the state IT division job.
"Everybody that I spoke to is kind of impressed that Massachusetts is thinking this way," he said. "This is not necessarily their forte. They don't need a lot of technology, they're policy-makers. However, we're getting into a time where technology is part of our lives."