Alaska’s first statewide chief information officer, Bill Vajda, left the state’s Office of Information Technology late last month to return to his family in Michigan, officials confirmed with StateScoop on Friday.
Though not the state’s first CIO, Gov. Bill Walker recruited Vadja — a former member of the NSA, IRS, White House and NATO — in April 2017 to serve as Alaska’s first statewide CIO. In this role, he was responsible for overseeing a newly-created IT office with the authority to enforce an IT consolidation effort on which previous CIOs had failed to find agency support. Backed by an administrative order from Walker, the new CIO role has been charged with setting statewide standards, reducing duplicative technology projects and increasing the state’s overall efficiency through the use of technology.
Alaska’s IT organization before the consolidation had gained a level of infamy for its difficult working environment for a CIO, a role previously assigned responsibility for a wide array of businesses, as with any CIO role, but not given the needed authority to execute on those goals.
Deputy CIO Dan DeBartolo told StateScoop that it was an unexpected personal event that drew Vajda away, and that he was “very much up to the challenge” of continuing to consolidate Alaska’s IT. Though Vajda’s time with the state was cut short, he said, that effort continues today.
“I would very much say we are still in the toddler stage of our development,” DeBartolo said. “We got our feet under us, but we’re still learning to be the effective communicators of all IT.”
Assuring agencies that they won’t lose federal funding and keeping an eye on how these changes could affect the people who work for state government have been key components of advancing the project, he said.
Vajda’s former deputy, Jim Steele, left the organization in December 2017 “leaving claw marks on my desk,” he told StateScoop at the time, citing a desire to continue on the progress on IT modernization he had helped bring about starting with former CIO Jim Bates, but that the timing was right for him to make way for a new team.
Vajda’s departure, coming now less than a year and a half into his time with the state, follows a common timeframe for a state CIO, particularly ahead of a three-way gubernatorial race between Gov. Walker, an independent, Democrat Mark Begich, and Republican Mike Dunleavy. Changes in governorship are frequently accompanied by moves in the C-suite.
However, former CIO Bates told StateScoop in past interviews that though he was intent on consolidating the state’s IT, he eventually quit after three years — frustrated with the organization, which he called “a pressure cooker,” and his inability to gain internal support for a consolidation effort.
IT consolidation and modernization is a task at the center of what any state CIO is responsible for as states must operate a wide array of computer systems, many of which are decades old and lacking adequate staff to maintain them, but it’s also a task often met with pushback from other agencies affected by sometimes uncomfortable changes to longstanding routines and practices.
“The fight was that all the other commissioners, they’re hearing the stories of their agencies, which are not really wanting to see consolidation happen,” Bates said. “They’re not wanting to lose the power and control, and I get it.”
Though many accounts from within OIT tell of a well-designed effort to empower the CIO to lead a successful consolidation, it’s also not the state’s first try. Early efforts at IT consolidation in Alaska date back almost 20 years. How a new governor could disrupt this project, particularly with Vajda leaving ahead of the November election, remains to be seen.
Department of Administration Spokeswoman Minta Montalbo assured StateScoop that “the State of Alaska remains 100% committed to the consolidation of IT services.”
John Boucher, an analyst with the Alaska Office of Management and Budget, will serve as the state’s acting CIO.
Vajda could not be reached for comment.