From blind to data-driven: Washington state's IT tracking framework is transforming governance

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Like many state governments, Washington state has in recent years struggled to understand its own technology investments.

It didn’t know exactly how its technology funding was being spent. It didn’t know whether the spending was accomplishing the specified goals. Working blind was making it difficult for policymakers to plan an informed path forward or for anyone to justify past or future budgeting. But through the adoption of what the federal CIO Council says is the largest public sector adoption of a framework called technology business management (TBM), the state is finally beginning to change all of this.

TBM is a methodology designed to solve government’s IT tracking problem. It’s also used by companies like Nike, Cisco, AIG and BMW. According to Sarah Vreugdenhil, a spokesperson for a nonprofit called the TBM Council and Apptio, a company that develops TBM software, the methodology is used by about a dozen public sector agencies, and its adoption by the General Services Administration and the Department of Justice is driving further adoption in government.

But before the federal government starting used TBM, the Washington state Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) says they came to them first.

Cammy Webster, a senior program manager of the TBM program within OCIO, told StateScoop the program has started proving its worth in 2017, but it took several blundering years before the office got it right.

In 2010, the state legislature began asking questions like: “What are we spending on technology?” and “What are we getting for our money?”

OCIO wasn’t able to answer those questions, Webster said, and so the legislature created a law requiring the state to implement something that would allow for it.

The state started in 2012 by putting new policies in place — a broad IT cost transparency effort that Webster said was poorly adopted and not terribly effective.

“We still weren’t able to answer it,” Webster said.

The ‘easy button’

After many months of not much progress, the state decided to try something different: TBM. But it still wasn’t successful right away, Webster said. In fact, the state spent about three and a half years trying to force TBM compliance on agencies before they tried a new approach.

The technology office held more than 40 meetings with agencies not to tell them what they had to do, but to explain the value they would get from this tool that was available, but that they weren’t using.

“We made the program more nimble,” Webster said. “As agencies have explained it to us, we came in and brought in some standardization and process and procedures and showed them how they fit in and it was like giving them an easy button.”

The technology agency’s change in approach was coupled with a standardized process. Initially, every agency that spent more than $250,000 annually was required to report IT spending, but everyone was using different forms and ways of tracking the information.

Agencies that spent more than $10 million on IT annually were also allowed to run their own TBM offices and then integrate with the central reporting office. None of this was effective or sustainable, Webster said.

But once agencies got their “easy button’ and TBM was presented as an asset, not a requirement, everything began changing, she said — they saw 100 percent adoption by agencies that were required to participate, and the questions that both agency heads and the legislature were asking now had answers.

Controlling the narrative

One thing they learned is that the legislature’s assumption that the state’s IT spending was chiefly being funneled into infrastructure was wrong. It was actually application support that was the cost sink for many agencies.

Keeping old applications running on legacy systems was incurring the state millions in extra costs. The good news was that because the state now had precise information of where that spending was occurring, there were legitimate explanations that agency heads could provide the legislature and there was evidence to support future plans.

“It gave us direction on how we start implementing our strategic plan and where we’re going and what needs to happen,” Webster said.

More good news was that that agency heads could show that a lot of their spending was temporary — after a given modernization project was completed, legacy application support would no longer be needed.

In 2017, the state learned it was spending $1.4 billion on IT. And while the CIO’s office was originally concerned that it would be seen as responsible for a steep rise in spending, the increase from approximately $1 billion could be accounted for. A large ERP upgrade underway in the state’s higher education system, for instance, explained much of the increase.

“TBM puts the narrative in control of the agencies,” Webster said.

Things you need and things you don’t

The state’s Department of Licensing (DOL) is the most advanced when it comes to using TBM, Webster said. The agency reports the framework has opened new paths of communication across its operational areas — CIOs, chief financial officers, procurement staff, and non-IT staff are all able to communicate using standardized language and processes.

Research by the U.S. General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget reveals that partnership between the OCIO and the Office of Financial Management was “key” to making the program effective.

The DOL uses TBM to review costs associated with hundreds of licensing fees administered by the agency. In addition to the broader operational view that the state has over DOL’s IT spending, the agency also dug into the data, and because each agency uses a common framework, they were able to benchmark against their peers. They discovered, Webster said, that their cybersecurity spending was much lower than that of other agencies.

DOL officials didn’t believe it was being more efficient than other agencies, Webster said — this was an oversight, and they fixed it by increasing security spending.

Washington’s use of TBM is “encouraging,” according to a CIO Council study, and the state says its success so far is garnering attention from state governments across the country.

There’s a few common concerns that come up, Webster said, and there are a few things she always tells other states:

  • You don’t need centralized IT to make this work. While Washington consolidated several technology offices in 2012 to simplify things, the state is still a federated body.
  • You don’t need a modern financial system. Washington says its system was built in the 80s.
  • You don’t necessarily need legislation backing TBM. Washington says it’s a nice fallback to have the law on their side, but they got buy-in by selling TBM’s value — they’re using “the carrot, not the stick,” Webster says.
  • You absolutely need executive support.

Washington’s sophistication with TBM isn’t yet complete, but it’s working, Webster said, and the best part is that it’s not just the CIO’s office and the agency heads that are using it — the legislature digs into the data and is using it to guide how they craft the state’s laws.

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Data & Analytics, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Enterprise Services, Innovation, IT Infrastructure, Legislation, Modernization, Office of the Chief Information Officer, Software, State & Local News, States, Tech News, technology business management, Washington
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