Amid IT consolidation, Kansas' tech chief tries to win back trust

Former Kansas Chief Information Technology Officer Lee Allen (StateScoop)

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Kansas’ top IT official met with state lawmakers this week in an attempt to dispel concerns that continuing to consolidate the state’s technology staff and infrastructure will raise costs, rather than lower them.

In a hearing Monday, Chief Information Technology Officer Lee Allen responded to a recent legislative audit that estimated the Office of Information Technology Service’s consolidation plans will increase annual IT costs somewhere between $2.6 million and $38 million, depending on the number of staff positions eliminated. But Allen, whose agency is already midway through an extensive project restructuring how Kansas’ Cabinet agencies receive services, told StateScoop the audit conflates unavoidable modernization upgrades with parallel efforts to centralize service delivery under a single agency.

“Those are two different topics completely,” he said.

The report, published last week by the Kansas Legislature’s auditing office, accurately shows that that several services that were previously delivered by OITS have already been outsourced, including desktop computer procurement, email and mainframe services. The administration of network and data center services, meanwhile, will also be outsourced to vendors, while security and service desk services will be centralized under OITS.

This work, which Allen said will occupy him for at least the next 18 months, was the subject of debate among the Legislative Post Audit Committee. The audit highlights numerous challenges — including complaints of poor communication from OITS and poor records of the state’s current IT spending — surrounding the ongoing efforts to centralize most of the state’s IT services.

The only service not being transitioned to a vendor or being centralized is application development and support, which will continue to be managed by individual agencies. But for everything else, the audit says, agency leaders are concerned.

A decade of baggage

But even with the audit’s conclusion that OITS’s consolidation project will raise costs and that many agency heads harbor serious concerns with the project, it offers no recommendations, noting that many of the increased costs are “likely unavoidable” given the “poor condition of Kansas’ current IT infrastructure.”

Allen, who was appointed last year by former Gov. Jeff Colyer and was retained when Laura Kelly took office in January, took over an IT organization that has been attempting to consolidate IT services and staff since at least 2011, earning a poor reputation with some agencies during that time. Many of the criticisms in the audit from agency heads leveled against the consolidation effort are likely a product of that history, Allen said.

“This is the baggage we get with a decade or more dealing with consolidated IT,” he said. “We have spent most of the first year improving those relationships and the confidence level with this administration.”

Complaints of poor communication and authoritarian decision-making from a CIO’s office in consolidated organizations are common, regardless of their merit. Former Washington CIO Michael Cockrill told StateScoop last year that it’s inevitable that some people will always be dissatisfied with the service they receive under a centralized IT structure, no matter how efficient, stable and cost-effective consolidation is for the statewide organization.

Allen said Thursday that many of the complaints found in the audit were gathered six to nine months ago, when the state’s IT service desk was understaffed. Only 560 of OITS’s of 791 budgeted staff positions are filled right now, which Allen attributed in part to jobs not being refilled after people retired or quit. He said his primary focus isn’t to save money by reducing employees, but rather to deliver the best services possible and figure out how many people are needed to support that level of service.

While the Kansas help desk’s staffing issues have largely been resolved, Allen said some people simply didn’t understand how a Tier 1 support desk works. Some had complained that their help requests had been sent back to support staff in their own agencies, which Allen said is how the desk is supposed to function in certain cases.

Agency heads concerned

The audit notes that while branch agencies have historically had “significant control” over their IT staff and services, the restructuring would shift much of that control to OITS. Some agency heads told the auditors they are concerned this could impede “their ability to accomplish their agencies’ missions.”

“They also told us OITS officials sometimes contradict themselves or suppress dissenting agency opinions about OITS projects,” the report says. “Some told us they thought OITS’s plan would produce ‘winners and losers,’ meaning larger agencies with better developed internal IT services would subsidize OITS’s improvement of agencies that may not have previously managed IT as well.”

But Allen supposed that many of those complaints stemmed from past consolidation efforts that many considered too aggressive. Allen himself spent seven years working inside Kansas agencies before being named the state’s top IT official, and said he understands these concerns intimately.

“That’s what we saw: changes made without input and without communication,” he said. “It was certainly the perception of OITS and oftentimes it was the reality as well. They struggled in the past to identify stakeholders and get them to the table and I’m doing everything I can to not make those same mistakes today.”

The uncertainty of how IT consolidation will affect the state’s finances is compounded by the state’s lack of centralized record-keeping around IT costs. In many states, technology purchases, such as digital phones, are frequently mixed into non-IT budgets. In Kansas, there’s been no centralized record of IT costs since there’s effectively been no centralized IT agency.

The audit predicts that completing the consolidation project will go a long way to fix the accounting problem, and Allen said that work to develop a statewide IT strategic plan to assist with cost tracking and other elements of the state’s overall IT governance is underway. Allen said he and Eric Davis, who was hired in January as Kansas’ chief technology officer and chief information technology architect, hope to have a plan ready in October.

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audit, IT consolidation, Kansas, Lee Allen
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