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CIO uses creative problem-solving to take on tight budget

In tough economic times, Massachusetts CIO John Letchford employs creative problem-solving to make IT a vital, transformative force.

Like many states -- and enterprises -- the commonwealth of Massachusetts is looking at another tough budget year in 2013. And like their peers in the private sector, state CIOs are also charged with keeping up with technology while keeping down costs. Massachusetts CIO John Letchford is no exception.

John LetchfordJohn Letchford

In 2009 the IT department was hit with deep cuts due to the recession. The state was able to restore some of that money in 2011 and 2012, but the IT budget as a percentage of state revenue remains a paltry 1%. Analysts at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. have found that cities and states with operating budgets of $10 billion or more allot on average 1.8% of their spending to IT. Still, the commonwealth finds ways to make IT work. In the first of a two-part interview, Letchford talks about how collaboration and creative problem-solving have become essential to delivering top service in tight economic times.

How bad is the budget picture in Massachusetts?

John Letchford: If you look at all the IT spending for the state -- and this doesn't include debt service or capital outlays -- the total was about $460 million in fiscal year (FY) 2012. That's just under 1%, compared to that 1.8% average cited by Gartner. It's low but it's reality. The current estimate for state revenues is not as high as projected, so we are dealing with IT budget cuts for the balance of FY13 and looking at a lean FY14.

Adding to that challenge, the delivery of government services is now completely dependent on information technology. IT is truly now an essential component of everything we do, from building roads and bridges, creating jobs, having safer neighborhoods and containing health care costs to closing the educational achievement gap. In order to make improvements, additional investments need to be made. In my role, I have to continue increasing everyone's awareness that improved government service effectiveness and transformation cannot be achieved without IT.

I have to continue increasing everyone's awareness that improved government service effectiveness and transformation cannot be achieved without IT.

John Letchford,
CIO, commonwealth of Massachusetts

So, the economy certainly calls for belt-tightening all around, but it also provides an opportunity for creative problem-solving, and that's something I think our strong cadre of technical and business leaders have done well in the face of ongoing challenges.

How do you make the argument that improvement and transformation of government services cannot happen without investment in IT?

Letchford: The business actually gets the concept of investing in IT in order to support and enable the business and even transform the business. The challenge now in a very, very tough economy -- which is now the new normal -- is working out how to sustain that support and transformation. Ultimately you've got to demonstrate that you're actually delivering that value and explain how that value is being captured. It can come from increased effectiveness, in which you're driving better services to constituents. Or it can be done in a more traditional way, correlating the investments in IT directly to the savings that are being achieved.

Can you give an example of this?

Letchford: We've been in the process of rolling out self-service time and attendance tracking across the whole executive department. It's not as simple it sounds. We realized we needed to make a very significant, ongoing investment in IT to make it work. We had to make an investment in a shared services organization because we realized that self-service time and attendance services at a comptroller's level, the HR level and across the executive department will make things better. What we're going to see in the coming years is how you actually relate that into material savings.

One area where shared services are effecting change is in the deployment of personnel. We've started moving people around to other parts of organizations. Now people don't need to spend all their time filling in time sheets for the whole organization; they can be repurposed to do something more efficient. But that's an efficiency gain, not a net saving.

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You said the tight economy has given rise to collaboration and creative problem-solving among your staff. What are some examples of this?

Letchford: I am very intrigued by the concept of public-private partnerships [PPPs] to solve business problems. You don't typically see many PPPs in the IT realm where investment, risks and benefits are shared between both public and private entities. I think the economy has forced everyone to be open to new approaches where we are required to build trust with a more diverse group of stakeholders. It has also set an expectation that we need to be more agile at finding solutions. I have three quick examples of creative problem-solving.

We're implementing an e-discovery and archiving solution for the state email service, which has approximately 35,000 users. In the old days we would have built and run this ourselves; in the new model, the operation will be provided by an external vendor with full agreement among leadership, employees and unions. We signed a five-year contract in December.

By summer we will have rolled out the Commonwealth Connect mobile app to 35 towns and cities in Massachusetts. This is a three-way collaboration between the city of Boston, the commonwealth and an external vendor who will develop and operate the platform.

We're also looking at how we can use social media to enhance our day-to-day operations and increase the level of civil engagement with constituents beyond using the available tools simply as ways to market government.

In the second part of this interview, Letchford will discuss his top technology priorities in 2013, as well as the ways he is addressing the challenge of IT staffing issues

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

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