"IT Leadership and Government Data" - Accepting the Challenge

Courtesy of David Eaves
 Reactions to talk by David Eaves about the role of the Government IT Director, in general and specifically for Open data.

Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.

Recently I was at a conference, ordering a beer, when I fell into a conversation with the person next to me.  From our name tags, I learned that his name was David – and that both of us were speakers.  My name tag identified me as an IT Director, while David was listed as “CEO/Business Development” for his company.  I asked him about his talk.

“My theme,” he said, “is that the IT Director has the hardest job around.” 

What could I do but agree?  (It’s nice to be vindicated every now and then.)  And it turns out he wasn’t just buttering me up to sell me on his software solution – although that might have been part of it.  I attended the talk the next day and that’s really what it was.  Here’s the talk:

This post is my reaction to his talk, which was a call to action for leadership from IT Directors.   So I’ve provided a quick summary of his points, and then some suggestions for action.  I’m writing this from the perspective of municipal government (as was David), but I think a lot of this is universal to any organization.

I thoroughly recommend spending 26 minutes to watch his talk, but in case you don’t here were my key takeaways:
  • Focus your open data inward, on internal users – that’s where the real benefits exist.
  • Open data should be at the bottom of the solution stack. (Although I think on this one David was playing too much to his Socrata hosts.  It’s not that Socrata needs to be at the bottom of the stack - that’s unrealistic because that’s where the operational databases live - but I totally agree that easily accessible data should be at the core of all processes.)
  • Today, technology touches every part of municipal government. Expectations for technology are exploding, and it’s just going to get worse.  David described this as “Digital vs. IT”, and he explains the difference near the end of his talk (21 minutes in).
He also has some interesting analogies that I won’t spoil, and he gives four specific points of advice to IT Directors that are worth reiterating:
  1. When applying data to business problems, start with a business question… not the data.
  2. Think about the user.
  3. Have a product management mindset, not project management. (Once a technology tool is in place, the project is over – but as long as that tool is used, it’s a product that IT is responsible for delivering to the users.)
  4. Don’t fall for the “One City App” pitfall.

The Challenge

David ended his talk by returning to the theme that IT Directors are in trouble, because we’re asked to do way more than we’re positioned/used/prepared to do.

He says that IT Directors need to broaden our skills and our roles, and think about strategy.  He suggests that IT Directors need to demand a bigger role.  “You have to grab the power” he says, or at least find someone who will do that who IT can partner with.

OK, those are good ideas.  But here I need to break in and say that David is leaving out a crucial, and very common, third scenario: what if the IT Director doesn’t want to grab the power of Digital leadership, and no one else is stepping up either?

I think this is common because as a personality type, most IT Directors are not “grab the power” kind of people.  And in small and medium-sized municipal governments you’re not going to find a lot of other people who have the time/energy/ability to drive a Digital strategy.  So, if no one is guiding the strategy, then the IT Director will be dragged along by the decisions of others.


But, while I completely agree with David’s points about the difficulty we face, I do believe that managing IT is possible.   (I recently learned that my title is actually “IT Manager” and not “IT Director” - and I think it’s a better title because no really directs IT… the best you can hope to do is manage it.)  So I’d like to propose some actions that can help, because I’m a nuts & bolts kind of person, and the inclination of most IT people is to propose solutions.

Strategic Plans

Let’s start with one of David’s main suggestions: that the IT Director needs to be the one who creates a strategic plan for Digital.  This is good advice – you can’t direct IT, but you can try to influence decisions before they’re planned… even though the actual results will be out of your control.  (Kind of like coaching a kids’ soccer team.)

If you’re an IT Director and the strategic technical plan is written without your input, then you definitely need to insert yourself into the planning process.

But I expect that more IT Directors are in a situation where they don’t have a plan - and no one else in their organization is going to write one either.  Writing a strategic plan is a daunting task for many IT Directors, especially ones who have risen from the ranks.  So, where do you start?

My suggestion is to write smaller documents that could be integrated in a plan later, but that provide a meaningful framework in the short term.  For example:
  • Write up your preferred technical environment, and explain why. Acknowledge up front that there might be exceptions, but they will need to be properly justified.  And go beyond just saying “we’re a Microsoft shop.”  How do you feel about open source applications?  What processes and data would you be willing to put on cloud servers?
  • Document the process for technology procurement, and IT’s role in it. What if a Department wants to purchase some technology, and IT disagrees – who’s the final arbiter? 
  • Create an inventory of business systems and data (including Access databases and anything that’s only in Excel), calculate their support costs, and prioritize their replacements.
Taken together, these smaller outputs give you guidelines that you can use to plan system upgrades/replacements, and balance new purchases against maintaining the products that you own.

Lowering Expectations

David had a stark image to show how expectations have changed for IT Directors – the one that I used for the header on this post.

This picture is useful to visualize the IT Director’s dilemma.  For years, most IT Directors worked in a relatively stable environment.  IT was centralized and controllable, most systems were complex enough that Departments wanted no part of running them, and paying vendors to run them was too expensive.   So the IT Director was asked to run a group of systems within a walled network.
The last few years saw an explosion of new variables.  Cloud systems mean that IT is not running software directly, yet is still responsible for its uptime.   A proliferation of personal technology means that the network is accessed by hundreds of devices all the time, but must be kept secure.  And technical platforms are far more complex as we’ve moved from central servers and mainframes into a world where virtualized servers juggle workloads across many machines.

So the poor IT Director also has to deal with more new technologies, techniques, and skillsets than ever – and becomes the wet blanket (more positively: the gate keeper) who must burst bubbles of excitement generated by vendor demonstrations and the excitement of someone who just attended a conference and saw the neatest, shiniest new thing.

My advice here is to focus on managing the expectations as much we manage technology.  And the good news is that the same outputs from the strategic plan help us here, too.  Pre-defining a platform sets the rules to turn down requests that don’t fit with your support capabilities.  Enforcing a well-defined procurement process refines the scope and strategy for IT projects, helping to avoid lofty expectations.  Even the prioritized system list subtly conveys the idea that maintaining existing solutions is generally more critical than adding new ones.

Open communication is essential for deflating expectations, too.   Particularly in the public sector, people need to understand that the timeline between getting excited about a new technology and actually starting to use it can be quite long – in some cases, it takes years.  (SAAS and other tools have vastly sped this up, which is great, but there are still delays from contracting, staffing, etc.)  Getting people to take the long view on their desires is important.

I find that making the people focus on the procurement process first (requirements analysis, budget requests, etc.) is enough to turn off many people.  I promise - it’s not that I’m blocking change, it’s just that sometimes the deliberative process of government is good because somewhere in the middle of it people realize that they don’t need that bright, shiny thing as much as they first thought.  (Sometimes the best action to take is no action: The Tao of IT).  Or, if a request does make it through a proper IT procurement process, then you can feel more confident that the ultimate solution will meet its stated goals.

And Finally

Unlike David I’d like to leave on a positive note.  The IT Director is able to make real changes that impact every group in their organization.  I think it’s important to stop frequently and look back to see your accomplishments.  Unfortunately, you may be the only one who recognizes the full story of what you did… although that’s an area where getting together with your peers can help.  (Only a peer can appreciate why it's an accomplishment to inflict complex passwords on your users!)

Just keeping the lights on - and the bad guys out - really is an achievement these days.  Focus on making incremental changes that improve the lives of your users, and you’ll be able to sleep at night because you’ll know that you’re fighting the good fight.

Plus it's worth noting that it's ALWAYS been like this.  My Dad provided this cartoon from his archives...   Update the job titles, and it's still relevant.  (And I love that the Data Processing Manager has a desk full of paper!)