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Techwire One-on-One: Pesticide Regulation CIO on Process Improvement, Procurement

“My role acts as oversight of the department’s internal IT governance process and I also coordinate with the AIO, other CIOs within CalEPA and CDT as needed,” says Michael Wanser, CIO and assistant director at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

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As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT and cybersecurity leaders.

Michael Wanser
Michael Wanser, chief information officer and assistant director at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.
Michael Wanser is chief information officer and assistant director at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), a position he has held since October 2018. He is a veteran state employee and has been at DPR more than 13 years. He was most recently IT branch chief for more than four years.

Wanser has a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science cum laude from California State University, Sacramento, and did pre-medicine/pre-medical studies work at Boston College. He still sometimes codes for fun.

Techwire: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role; and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Wanser: As part of a smaller department, I hold a dual role: chief information officer and assistant director. As an assistant director, I coordinate with the other assistant directors to strategize around department-wide items, whether IT-related or not. We meet weekly to catch up on key priorities and as needed for specific projects. Regarding my CIO role, the IT staff are separated into two larger units, one focusing on infrastructure, help desk and web support; and the other focusing on application development, project management and information security. I have one manager over each of these units and I work with them closely to manage overall strategy and coordination between the teams. The enterprise architect and information security officer also advises me to support our strategic efforts. My role acts as oversight of the department’s internal IT governance process and I also coordinate with the AIO (agency information officer), other CIOs within CalEPA (the California Environmental Protection Agency) and CDT (the California Department of Technology) as needed. In my 2.5 years in this role, there haven’t been significant changes in responsibility since I started. The most significant changes typically arise due to new requirements at the state level or high-profile business objectives that can take on an IT aspect with minimal warning. However, thanks to the hard work and creativity of my team, we’ve implemented improved processes around project governance, communication strategy, budget management, incident response, accessibility and more.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Wanser: DPR updated our strategic plan in 2018. As part of that process, the entire plan was reviewed and revised. I participated throughout that process and updated all of the IT objectives to reflect modern approaches and state priorities. I was fortunate to have an excellent team to offer suggestions and review my updates, which resulted in strong objectives that continue to provide an excellent strategic compass when needed. As the leader of a smaller department, I’m fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to ensure that IT “has a seat at the table.” I meet weekly with four other key assistant directors (Administration and Program) to discuss key departmental activities and strategies. These meetings are critical to the successful execution of departmental projects and priorities. Beyond those meetings, the executive team has a very good chemistry, so it’s easy to just pick up the phone and call one another for a quick chat when needed.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Wanser: DPR has a number of procurements coming up in the upcoming year: CalPEST (California Pesticide Electronic Submission Tracking) is a non-delegated project to create electronic services to receive and process pesticide registration materials such as applications and renewals. Responses to DPR’s recent Request for Information estimated the vendor costs at around $6 million. DPR engaged with CDT’s Statewide Technology Procurement unit to begin the procurement process. In support of the CalPEST project above, DPR requires the services of a seasoned project manager to manage DPR’s responsibilities. This role will oversee planning, procurement, and implementation phases of the project. Also in support of CalPEST, DPR requires an experienced Independent Verification and Validation vendor to oversee aspects of the project.

Techwire: How do you define “digital transformation,” and how far along is your organization in that process? How will you know when it’s finished?

Wanser: Digital transformation represents the department’s ability to serve our partners, stakeholders, and the general public, leveraging a variety of technologies to securely increase efficiency, transparency and accessibility. As trite as it may sound, digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. From an internal-facing technology perspective, DPR continues to make many positive strides in this direction, particularly in the area of increased efficiency. We have a number of internal-facing systems that capture, process, and analyze information. As with many other departments, the pandemic accelerated a number of key projects that have improved our ability to communicate and collaborate. As for public-facing technologies, DPR has made significant progress in providing accessible content while maintaining mindfulness of the varying technology capabilities of our diverse audience. DPR still has a lot of opportunities to develop online services for some of our most important functions. As shared above, we are currently working to create online methods for managing our pesticide registration process. Other public-facing areas that are ripe for transformation include our pesticide applicator licensing and school pesticide use reporting processes. Internally, we have identified other key opportunities for digital transformation around document management and data governance.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Wanser: We have 35 employees.

Editor’s note: In the May revision to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021-2022 state budget, DPR had a budget of slightly more than $156 million. Its budget includes $5 million from the Department of Pesticide Regulation Fund for CalPEST development and implementation. While much of the May revision has been finalized, a complete state budget document is not yet available online.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Wanser: I prefer to be contacted via email. As other CIOs in this column have shared, I receive 25 to 30 emails a day from vendors, so I tend to pay less attention to the bulk emails. While they can be helpful in raising awareness of new products, they probably won’t get me to bite. It’s really helpful when vendors do the homework. The best vendor email I ever received was from someone who had reviewed DPR’s website and provided real examples of how their product would benefit us. The vendor also identified a broken web link, which was beneficial to DPR as well. I called them back within 24 hours of receiving that email.

Techwire: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Wanser: I started at DPR in 2008 as an associate programmer analyst after six years in the private sector as a programmer with a consulting firm. While I’m certainly proud of the many technical solutions I developed, managed or oversaw, I’m most proud of the work culture I’ve been able to cultivate within DPR’s IT workforce. I’ve been very fortunate to have amazing mentors-as-bosses since I joined state service. Each of them has their own strengths, and I learned so much from each of them. I’ve been equally fortunate to hire some amazing and experienced staff who taught me a lot as well (some of whom have become CIOs themselves). With these influences, I’ve worked hard to establish a culture of mentoring within the IT team. As I rose through the ranks, I also put in a lot of effort over the years to break down the silos of the various IT units to improve collaboration and information sharing. The positive outcomes of this culture have been many. My team is better able to manage diverse “all-hands" efforts such as timely Assembly Bill 434 accessibility compliance and Information Security Assessments/Audits. Team members understand that they are trusted and valued by both IT leadership and departmental leadership. Perhaps most importantly, my team is empowered to develop creative solutions rather than just “follow orders.” I am continually amazed and proud of the work my teams perform.

Techwire: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Wanser: While I’d like to say I wish IT procurement were faster, I understand why the processes can take so long. From a competitive standpoint, it’s important to ensure that state funds are used responsibly. From a contracting standpoint, I’ve experienced first-hand the value in putting clear and appropriate language in contracts and the value of DGS’s hard work in developing the General Provisions. For our ongoing non-delegated project, CalPEST, we’re working closely with the CDT Statewide Technology Procurement (STP) unit to conduct what’s called a “challenge-based procurement.” Based on the information I’ve received from STP, this will allow interested vendors to develop small portions of functionality to demonstrate both their technical and soft skills. Both DPR and the vendor will experience a small slice of what it will be like to work together to implement a software solution. This process is new to us, so I’m unsure of the exact timelines, but expect we’ll be reaching out to vendors in summer 2021. Lastly, I’m excited about the prospects of the 2019 AB 971, which requires state entities to evaluate vendors for any contract over $500,000. I believe CDT’s implementation of that bill provides a fair opportunity to understand scenarios around positive or negative engagements. I’m hopeful that my team can integrate those evaluations into the evaluation process of upcoming scored competitive procurements.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Wanser: Well, Techwire is certainly my go-to source for California gov tech/SLED information. Additionally, I have conversations with Gartner, other technology leaders, and technology vendors. Due to their broad view of state IT, the California Department of Technology oversight team has been invaluable in providing experiential-based lessons learned and guidance regarding the IT project life cycle and IT procurement.

Techwire: What are your hobbies, and what do you enjoy reading?

Wanser: As a father of four younger children, most of my free time is spent playing with them. My wife and I work hard to keep them entertained and active. On weekends, we make sure to take some long walks or bike rides, since everyone is cooped up all week due to COVID. We’re hopeful that the kids can re-engage in sports after COVID. When time allows, I enjoy playing video games. Most of my kids are old enough that we can play together. I occasionally code for fun in the evenings, but it’s pretty rare these days. When reading, I prefer fiction (especially Stephen King’s Dark Tower series) and an occasional historical book.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.