California CIO works to rebuild trust in his team

Faced with the wreckage of a collapsed IT department, a government teetering on bankruptcy and a new boss whose most famous role is as an evil cyborg, California CIO J. Clark Kelso still sees his state as “the land of dreams and innovation. We’ve overcome challenges before.”

By some estimates, if California were a country it would be the world’s fifth largest economy. But the state has not had its IT Department (DOIT) for more than 18 months and, Kelso said, has no plans to establish a new one.

Kelso, a professor at Pacific University’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, was brought in as special IT adviser to the governor by former Gov. Gray Davis to help guide the state’s controversy-plagued IT Department through its closure in the summer of 2002.

He has had to navigate a landscape that includes the loss of public trust in the state government, strict budget constraints and the dire need for a thorough analysis of state IT.

“You can’t lead an organization as large and diverse as California government by fiat,” Kelso said. “You have to lead through a collaborative process.”

Find common ground. That’s been the directive from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kelso said. “DOIT was set up to be the state’s IT czar. That may have set it up for failure.”

700 fiefdoms

“State” almost seems too small a word to define California. A list of just the names of the state agencies comes to 18 pages. Most of them have their own CIOs.

“They always did,” Kelso said. “That was part of the problem with the DOIT.”

Robb Deignan, spokesman for the General Services Department, compared California to “700 fiefdoms.”

Overcoming the negative perceptions of California IT has been one of Kelso’s biggest challenges. “Once you’ve lost someone’s trust, it’s always difficult to win it back,” he said. Kelso compared the DOIT meltdown to the loss of the public’s trust in government after Watergate.

Add to this the fact that the new governor described California as potentially “bankrupt” by June and urged radical spending cuts.

California can’t abruptly stop spending money on computers, Kelso said. The state has to maintain secure systems and meet federal mandates. But there isn’t any extra money on the table, the kind that would give a state CIO freedom to make rapid progress on targeted initiatives, Kelso said.

“We have to do a better job of managing the resources we do have and enforce a discipline that at times does not exist,” he said. Kelso and the other key players in California IT “have to show technology as an investment that has a return,” he said.

Schwarzenegger has begun a performance review process for state agencies that Kelso called “a stem-to-stern analysis of government operations and programs.”

The governor is committed to seeking the benefits and productivity gains of digital government, Kelso said. “He understands the transformational nature of technology.”

Schwarzenegger’s mantra—“action, action, action”—is what California needs to remake itself, Kelso said. “The governor wants things to happen. He doesn’t want to sit around studying endlessly.”

Kelso said his job is not that much different from any CIO in an organization with more than 200,000 employees and a thousand different programs. The difference is that Kelso has to perform the same duties as a Fortune 100 company CIO but in a political context.

Kelso and the state’s other IT officials are still clearing out the financial confusion left by DOIT. For example, the department did not keep a record of IT spending.

The purchase of desktop PCs and other computer spending was often folded into non-IT categories such as construction. He said they can only guess at what California spent on IT before last July, when the state established a database of IT purchases.

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