Business Relationship Management (BRM) – defined as a belief and practice that positive relationships drive tangible value in organizations – is becoming a hotter topic at the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) as states use the practice to weave throughout government the IT authorities and relationships that make for more efficient use and administration of technology resources.

NASCIO hosted a webinar on August 27 to discuss BRM, where it fits in developing state CIO operating models, and showcasing successful BRM efforts in state government. Speaking on the webinar were NASCIO President and New Hampshire CIO Denis Goulet as moderator, joined by Dickie Howze, CIO for the state of Louisiana, Mike Leahy, CIO for the state of Maryland, and Nelson Moe, CIO for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Those officials talked about BRM as a way to support the new state CIO operating model also known as “CIO as Broker,” and its importance managing the many strategic relationships within state government business programs that in turn are key to the successful function of the state CIO office.

With that in mind, there is a growing focus on CIOs’ ability to adopt and further develop a discipline in BRM, with the objective being to proactively engage and partner with key stakeholders – particularly agency executive management.

Here are two looks at BRM development in the state CIO arena, and one piece of key advice – things work better when the CIO packs some muscle from the governor.

Historical Development

Today’s focus on BRM is light years from the state government IT “Grand Poobahs” of a quarter century ago. That’s when data center managers were the “great lizards” of state tech and held their ecclesiastical court, rarely venturing forth from their safe – and at the time probably secure – Big Blue havens.

The current budding development of BRM roles for state CIOs harkens back to that time in the mid-nineties when I was the first state CIO in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and arguably the first state CIO in the country.

I and many of the other new state CIOs cropping up around the country during that period were focused on data center consolidation. As in most states at that time, while there may have been a central data center under the purview of the new state CIO servicing enterprise-wide applications like payroll and accounting, other major state agencies had their own mainframe data centers for systems that ran motor vehicles, revenue, welfare, the courts and other departments, just to name a few.

Convincing these departments to accept consolidation? Ah well, there’s the rub.

Looking back at that experience, I can say I never in my life met a data center manager in favor of consolidation. In fact, not only were the data center managers vehemently opposed, but some worked to poison their entire executive agencies to the consolidation proposals. As a result, cabinet secretaries had become convinced that their entire operational programs would ground to a halt if their data center ever moved out of the agency headquarters building.

As I told the Massachusetts governor at that time – and reprised a few years later as the first CIO in California going through a similar process – data centers are a lot easier to consolidate if they all report to you. However, if they don’t report to you, cabinet-level status for the state CIO greatly facilitates the process of encouraging other agency participation very nicely.

It is this last point that has given me pause about this new role for the state CIO to lead BRM throughout the enterprise, specifically as it applies to relationships with agency executive management.

While building business relationships with other agencies is not remotely similar to cutting off significant pieces of agency directorates like a data center, asking these individual agencies to take an enterprise approach to BRM along with IT management and investment is still not a walk in the park. Interagency cooperation and coordination in government has a tortuous history at all levels. That is why such cooperation is better fostered among equals, and cabinet-level status for the state CIO creates the environment.

It was no coincidence then, that the recent NASCIO panel members and moderator who were extolling the virtues of BRM for the most part enjoyed the virtues and authority of cabinet status or its equivalent in their jurisdictions.

Leahy’s title in Maryland is Secretary, and CIO; and Goulet is one of New Hampshire’s handful of Commissioners who represent the governor’s cabinet. Virginia’s CIO Moe, while not a member of the governor’s cabinet, oversees the Virginia Information Technology Agency (VITA), perhaps one of the strongest CIO models and most centralized of any state IT shop in the country.

Louisiana Experience

However, most state CIOs today do not have similar authority. In fact, only about a dozen or so state CIOs are members of their governors’ cabinets. That is why it is so fascinating to me how successful Dickie Howze has been in Louisiana, as he certainly proves the exception to the rule. Even without the cabinet status, Howze has in spite of the odds become the face of state BRM.

As Goulet explained, Louisiana created an organization titled ‘agency relationship management’ – which included a detailed set of roles and responsibilities – just short of a decade ago. “We started our planning for this massive undertaking in 2013, prior to our organization being stood up legislatively in July of 2014,” said Howze.

As a part of this initiative within the new organization, the team members were called “agency relationship managers” who report to a director who is a member of Howze’s executive team. They spent six months studying the landscape of Louisiana’s executive branch of state government.

“For decades these agencies were accustomed to owning every member of their IT organization and subsequently directing them according to their individual cabinet secretary’s priorities,” Howze said. “So, we knew going in that we were going to have to reach out and take everything from facilities to personnel, and all of the assets, every single thing contained within all the facilities and the software and the ability to control the money.”

He made sure they did their homework in advance, and that his team consisted of a very strong and capable group of individuals, spread across the agencies that could support these activities in the early days to help them adopt and understand what the administration was trying to accomplish.

“I knew that, out of most everything else, we delivered as an organization. And it led to the standing up of the Office of Technology Services (OTS) here in Louisiana. I knew that this was probably going to be one of the most important things that we needed to do,” Howze said.

There were over 1,200 employees affected when they started the process of moving them from their former agencies over to Howze’s OTS division, which is located within the Louisiana Division of Administration – a cabinet agency. “We made sure that the individuals that occupied those key roles – those agency relationship management roles were individuals that had full-circle knowledge of the agency – meaning they were fairly high-ranking individuals in those former agencies before joining the Office of Technology Services,” he said.

As described on OTS’ web site, agency relationship management staff members focus primarily on customer service, and are assigned to and co‐located with state departments and offices serviced by the OTS.

The agency relationship management officials facilitate relationships between the OTS operational units and partner agencies through strategic planning, communications, and in‐depth understanding of both the agencies’ business objectives and OTS’ service offerings and capabilities, plus a thorough awareness of the partner agencies’ portfolio of information technology systems.

Howze and OTS have been at this now for seven years, and have created a handbook (LINK) for adoption.

“It lays out the basic facts of who we are and what we’re trying to do, and goes into some detail as it relates to what is the function and the purpose of the agency relationship manager,” Howze said. He knew that OTS had to be very clear about roles and include a “go-to” individual that sits within each agency. “These agencies know who that individual is, they know that they’re the person they can go to if there’s a serious issue, or we’ve got a production system that’s down that’s impacting the public, or what have you,” he said.

Howze and company spent six months planning out this BRM model in great detail. “We knew that this function was going to play a key role in helping us to communicate with the customers, many of whom did not want to see this happening in the first place, so we definitely had our work cut out for us,” he said.

The Louisiana experience looks like it has paid off well. But for other states contemplating similar BRM journeys, my experience tells me that that cabinet status for the CIO would facilitate the process immensely, for consolidation, budgeting, oversight, and BRM.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.