Utah's Centralizer: How a State CIO Merged 24 IT Departments

A state CIO charges in to remake the state's IT department, and he's got the governor's seal of approval.

J. Stephen Fletcher's office window offers a perfect view of the Utah State Capitol: a Palladian dome trussed up with scaffolding for an extensive renovation. It's also a perfect metaphor for Fletcher's own task of reinventing the state's Department of Technology Services (DTS).

In April 2005, Fletcher became the state's fourth CIO -- the third in four years -- charged with turning 24 separate IT departments into a single organization. Utah had almost 1,000 IT workers, yet only four actually reported to the CIO. "Utah's CIO office was essentially a CIO and a few staff members with absolutely zero influence over any IT activities in the state," says Fletcher. "Everything was stovepiped. Nothing was focused or aligned. It was total chaos."

There was no coordination, no sharing of data, no use of standards. But there was waste: 24 agencies with 35 data centers, 22 different versions of word processing software and 369 desktop configurations. "That didn't make sense," Fletcher says. "We don't need 23 LAN administrators all doing the same thing."

Instability also engulfed the state CIO office. One of Fletcher's predecessors had tried to shake up the department, but then found himself at the center of controversy and resigned. Then, in 2005, a new governor rode into office with the intention of making the state more efficient. The Legislature passed a bill that centralized IT and finally gave the CIO real power. The new CIO's office suddenly found itself responsible for the IT backbone of the entire state government that includes two dozen agencies as different as the Department of Corrections and the State Tax Commission.

Utah isn't alone in its goal to drive efficiencies through better organizational structure, namely moving from a decentralized model to a centralized one with a single CIO calling the shots. "Historically in most state governments, IT has not been centralized, and that's been expensive and frustrating for both the customers and the managers," says John Kost, managing vice president for government research at Gartner Inc. and former CIO of Michigan. "The trend has been toward centralization. You're seeing the emergence of stronger CIOs."

Not that state CIOs who work in a centralized model answer to no one. They still have to deal with a dizzying array of bosses and clients, such as governors, legislatures, civil service employees and citizens. In fact, the centralized CIO has much more accountability. "The biggest challenge is trying to communicate our message to all our different stakeholders and to try to address all their different needs," Fletcher says. "Their objectives are not all the same: The Legislature wants us to move this along, [but] the agencies are saying you're going to break stuff and that you have to go slower. Balancing those is sometimes difficult."

But Fletcher holds a couple of aces in his hand: a mandate from the governor and sweeping new powers given to him by the state Legislature (along with a three-year timeline to effect the transition to the new model). Now Fletcher has set about reinventing how Utah does IT. "This is a CIO's dream," he says. "You've been given the opportunity to build an organization from scratch and do it the right way. That's just an exciting opportunity."

This was first published in February 2007

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