Upgrading.Gov

As the Texas economy continues to boom, the duo is working to implement solutions that make the state more efficient. If they succeed in providing quality services, building partnerships between the public and private sectors, and making secure information available through the official state portal, DIR will help taxpayers reap the benefits associated with a sustainable and competitive technology environment.

Whether measured by area or population, Texas is the second largest state in the country, and the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) provides statewide technology leadership and solutions to government, education, and other local entities. Two dynamic leaders, Karen Robinson and Todd Kimbriel, are at the helm. As the Texas economy continues to boom, the duo is working to implement solutions that make the state more efficient. If they succeed in providing quality services, building partnerships between the public and private sectors, and making secure information available through the official state portal, DIR will help taxpayers reap the benefits associated with a sustainable and competitive technology environment.

The department’s most visible project is the state’s online portal, Texas.gov. Available to any state agency, the portal creates cost savings by hosting more than 1,100 online services. There, customers can pay utility bills, enroll in programs, renew licenses, and perform other vital, everyday functions. “We’re striving to create an environment where citizens and businesses see government services as easy to access and easy to use,” says Robinson, who serves as chief information officer for the State of Texas and executive director of DIR. “That’s one of the main goals of Texas.gov. The more we can create intelligent networks and an online presence that allows citizens to access and interact with their government easily, the more citizens will have a positive experience with their government.”

Texas.gov-Robinson-600x400
Karen Robinson, Texas Department of Information Resources

For state agencies and municipalities, the site offers secure applications, customer service, payment processing, technology management, and training. In the last fifteen years, Texas.gov has collected more than $32 billion and sent nearly $200 million to the Texas State Treasury. And because these activities are managed through a public/private partnership, they have come without the need for appropriated taxpayer funds.

Texas is a plural executive state that reduces the governor’s power by spreading authority across many offices. Officials do not cooperate in a traditional cabinet, and each agency is responsible for its own infrastructure. The unique arrangement makes the web portal and DIR’s other projects especially important. “Agencies look to DIR as the tech leaders of the state, and we try to build relationships across many different areas with a cross-agency model for collaboration that is both young and growing,” says Kimbriel, who serves as deputy chief information officer for the State of Texas and deputy executive director of DIR.

It’s taken some time to get those important networking relationships off the ground. When Robinson joined DIR in 2009, she noticed some key projects weren’t going as well as expected. She picked up the phone, started calling agency directors and commissioners, and requested face-to-face meetings. “I discovered how unique every agency is,” she says. “They all have different needs that we need to be able to serve.”

After several important meetings, Robinson and her staff built a three-tiered governance structure for a data center consolidation project based on level of participation. Robinson got buy-in after asking agency leaders to help her define a strategic vision to address their critical needs, and the data center consolidation is now successfully underway. Each group includes DIR staff, vendor partners, and agency customers. “Now, everyone has a voice and everyone participates in planning,” Robinson says. “We come together and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. We make tough decisions together so we can do things that can actually drive results.”

One group that makes up the governance structure for the data center services program is the business executive leadership committee. That’s where agency executive managers meet to define the strategic business direction of the data center program, resolve critical issues, and approve business decisions. The other two levels, the IT leadership committee and four topic-centered solutions groups, address specific areas within their areas of expertise. Together, the entire governance structure allows agency representatives to work together to advance the program by resolving issues and striving for consensus-based solutions. “It’s a remarkable model, and it’s really helped us give each agency a seat at the decision-making table while moving forward as an enterprise,” Robinson says.

Todd Kimbriel
Todd Kimbriel, Deputy CIO, State of Texas

Texas is consolidating its IT infrastructure to reduce taxpayer costs and improve security, data-exchange, and disaster-recovery capabilities. The project involves twenty-nine independent agencies, which comprise about 80 percent of the state’s data use and storage, moving from legacy environments to two data centers in a mandated consolidation initiative managed by DIR. The state also adopted a multisourcing-services-integrator model to provide flexibility, accountability, monitoring tools, and cost transparency so that participating agencies could better manage their use of the data center services program.

With its economy growing, the state is looking to attract new business and protect the interests of local governments and entrepreneurs. Texas is touting low taxes, grants, and other incentives to woo tech companies from neighboring states like California. Robinson and Kimbriel say former governor Rick Perry has championed DIR initiatives from the online portal to cybersecurity measures. “The governor has demonstrated the foresight to see that state government can partner with the high-tech industry in a way that’s beneficial to both sectors and to the economy in general,” Robinson explains. That leadership has enabled DIR to deliver services more efficiently and bring updated IT to bear. Additionally, Robinson says support from the office of the governor holds her accountable to respond to what state agencies need to do to meet the needs of the citizens they serve.     

These events in some ways deepen the significant challenges facing DIR. “There’s more data out there to protect today than ever before,” Kimbriel says. Citizens expect agencies to protect their data, and DIR must equip each entity to do so. The state’s chief information security office has developed a Texas cybersecurity framework, which provides state agencies with objective assessment tools to help guide their next steps for advancing their cybersecurity readiness.

The framework includes a template that maps concrete cybersecurity objectives and outlines tools that will help each agency accomplish those objectives. By doing so, agencies help DIR discover what products and services are in high demand. DIR leaders are looking at statutes and rules to ensure they are current and effective in today’s IT environment. Additionally, the organization is building a cybersecurity workforce, working with public schools and higher education to groom students in related fields and to promote the cybersecurity industry within Texas. “We want the state to be known as a place the cybersecurity industry can call home, not only for economic development reasons, which are important, but also because having a strong industry base reinforces the state’s cybersecurity talent pool in many ways,” Kimbriel says.

Another challenge lies in keeping up with the tide of technology. DIR is already increasing its data network in anticipation of higher demand for cloud, video, and collaboration services that Texas agencies will require to serve citizens in just a few years. Consumer behavior is also driving these changes. “Increased mobility is huge,” says Robinson. “People are accessing agency information on smartphones at increasing rates, and we need to help agencies provide the information when and where citizens want to use it.” The state’s IT strategic plan calls for government to “optimize websites on mobile browsers, deploy mobile applications for download, and implement text messaging services to improve performance,” and “integrate the demand for mobile solutions into their overall IT strategy.” Other important parts of the strategy involve improving internal use of mobile devices and developing policies and guidelines for the use of personal devices in the workplace.

“The governor has demonstrated the foresight to see that state government can partner with the high-tech industry in a way that’s beneficial to both sectors and to the economy in general,”

As DIR grows, its leaders are looking to continue leveraging the state’s size. A cooperative purchasing program that brings discounts from vendors saved taxpayers $300 million in 2013. Through it, purchasers save time and money, while vendors gain access to state agencies, cities, schools, and other customers. “We’re focusing on this strategy because agencies can partner to bring greater economies of scale,” Robinson says. A large state agency may need a huge refresh of 5,500 computers, for example, while a smaller school district that lacks a contract manager may only need 50 computers. That smaller entity can leverage the volume of the larger contract to receive a better deal and roll savings into other mission-critical activities.

The strategy becomes especially important in a state like Texas that has rural communities spread over a hundred million acres. In fact, 75 percent of DIR’s customers are outside of state agencies in cities, counties, school districts, and other local jurisdictions. Recently, the department hosted a DIR Connect Technology Expo in Austin to help state agencies and others network and understand how to use services like the cooperative contracts program, which currently account for more than 750 contracts for IT products and services for public-sector use.

Additionally, the Department of Information Resources has entered into an interlocal agreement with the State of Oklahoma to create a pilot program that names DIR as Oklahoma’s preferred vendor for their information technology purchases. The program allows Oklahoma governmental entities access to DIR’s negotiated contracts for one year to determine feasibility for a longer-term arrangement.

Now more than ever, advancements in enterprise technology are changing the way business is done across the state as companies adopt cloud solutions. “Texas is leading the nation in cloud services,” Kimbriel says. “Cloud is behind how a lot of agencies do business, because in many cases it’s so cost effective.”

In pursuit of this trend, DIR started providing the technology in 2011. The first step was a Pilot Texas Cloud Offering study, through which DIR generated a takeaway document to help agencies learn more about the realities of moving to the cloud. In 2013, agencies started migrating to managed cloud environments, and today, 59 percent of the state’s agencies have either planned or implemented cloud computing. This study and the subsequent steps garnered the agency a Best of Texas Award from the Center for Digital Government for “Best IT Collaboration Among Organizations,” awarded in June of 2014.

Robinson says the evolution is exciting. “The cloud is one development that brings agencies together in a new way,” she says. “We can see the benefits of operating with greater economies of scale when we pool our needs for services, but we must also consider the individual cultures and needs each agency brings to the table.” When DIR implemented Microsoft Office 365 for more than 100,000 state employees, its staff had to create an offering with proper security measures for agencies that deal with sensitive or personal information on a regular basis.   

The next few years will be critical. New reports show that in recent years, Texas was one of the fastest growing tech employment states in the nation. Software companies, banks, and the health-care industry are driving the demand. As DIR equips state agencies and builds cross-sector partnerships, it will do so with continued learning in mind. “We’re collaborating more,” Robinson says. “It’s not just state government, and it’s not just in Texas. There’s a lot of cross-jurisdictional conversation about key issues that affect us all.” States are talking to states, public agencies are talking to private companies, and elected officials are talking to community leaders. Together, they’re discussing mobility, big data, cybersecurity, and other trends. And as DIR fosters these connections and advances technology, the organization is simultaneously building the relationships and the systems that will keep Texas moving in the right direction.