Sacramento, CA – Secretary of State (SOS) CIO Rita Gass is blunt when discussing her goal of modernizing her agency’s infrastructure in the wake of government security mandates. It’s not a task her department can do on its own.
“We need the vendor community,” she said to dozens of vendors during a recent briefing with Sacramento area technology firms. “We have to partner.”
Further, as the SOS prepares for the November elections, its primary function, she admits a major issue at the agency is a lack of IT personnel.
“Our talent pool is very limited,” Gass said. “A lot of departments are competing for the existing personnel, so shortage is always going to be an issue.”
Chris Worley, COO of Trinity Technology Group, understands government’s staffing shortages all too well and welcomes Gass’s candor. He believes state agencies seeking assistance from vendors will find a higher project success rate when a cohesive team is developed between the two.
“We’ve run into some clients where there is an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Worley said. “As Ms. Gass discussed, we really want it to feel like a true partnership.”
Worley is pleased that Gass, as a department head, is aware of the state’s limitations.
“They already have a full plate of what they should be doing as primary tasks,” Worley said. “Adding another large project without having personnel dedicated is like saying ‘treat the new project as other duties-as-assigned.’”
He believes progress becomes limited and staff could become demoralized if employees are relegated to achieving new goals on a part-time basis. “That’s another reason to bring a vendor in because our firms are focused on technology projects day in and day out.”
At the briefing Gass said her relationships with vendors need to include a crucial concept: the resilience a private company can offer to a project during the lifetime of a contract, and then beyond.
“A partnership with a vendor is important in both good times and bad times,” Gass said. “We have to be creative as a community because what we were successful doing in the past will likely not succeed today.”
Worley couldn’t agree more. “We want the project to succeed early and we want it to exceed the client’s expectations so the client will invite us back for something else down the road.” This sentiment, he says, is especially true for smaller companies like Trinity because “you’re only as good as your last project. The goals become aligned when everyone realizes we are involved to make the project successful.”
During the briefing Gass offered an anecdote on the urgency of her agency’s legislative mandates, and by extension, ensuring the software supporting the election process is operating properly.
“Other State agencies can create systems for taxes or health care. But if their systems are not ready for implementation, those agencies can say, ‘Hey we’re going to implement in one week.’ If, however, people cannot register to vote – or cannot vote at all, our agency cannot say, ‘Hey we’re moving the election to January.’ That’s not possible. It’s critical for us to meet our deadline.”
Also, at the briefing was John Caampued, manager of the Systems Engineering Section at the SOS. He took Gass’s theme of time-limits one step further by saying effective communication between a vendor-contractor and its agency-client allows for both sides to understand the skill gaps that need to be addressed.
“Vendors need to know what we need so we can effectively work on solutions together,” Caampued said. “This partnership becomes imperative so we can identify all the solutions to meet our business objectives.”
Again, Worley applauds these conclusions. Governmental agencies realizing their primary job is to serve their constituents, versus developing software, is a proactive mindset he believes.
“Agencies will often do large IT projects that we call a ‘once in a lifetime’ project,” he said. “It’ll be the only IT project that group of people does in their work career. On the other hand, Trinity has 42 active projects right now. We do this type of work every day, over and over, which is why we can offer an expertise the departments don’t have.”
Although Gass and her staff are eager to partner with qualified vendors, another concern for her is the state’s procurement process, which she laments “is very slow.”
“If we get funding in July to be used for a November election, and the procurement process is two to three months, how can you use the money for election purposes?” she asked rhetorically. “We don’t have time to do a big RFP – so I ask you, what can we do to have a faster procurement process?”
Worley agrees wholeheartedly that securing procurements is a challenge in the state. But, he does offer a solution.
“One possible way to make the process simpler might be to break larger projects into smaller projects,” he said. “Start with something where the agency does a data-readiness assessment, then document current business processes; these are activities that heavily
involve the state’s subject matter experts. That would give the agency time to be working on the larger procurement.”
Doing more with less, says Gass, means departments need to become innovative – a common theme during her briefing and among state agencies. She then offered a plea to the vendor community. “We need to know that you can support our department with our requirements. We cannot continue to be doing what we did five years ago.”