Illinois’s CIO is leading a statewide digital transformation

BrandPost By Phil Weinzimer
Jun 06, 2016

Illinois is undergoing a digital transformation to improve the services it provides to its citizens. At the core of the transformation is Hardik Bhatt, the state's CIO and secretary designate of innovation and technology.

States are changing the way they govern, today viewing citizens as customers and providing services based on sound business practices. Information and technology are playing key roles in this transformation, led by strategic and visionary CIOs such as Hardik Bhatt, CIO and secretary designate of the state of Illinois’s department of innovation and technology and CIO. I had the opportunity to sit down with Hardik to discuss how he’s helping the governor of Illinois reshape the state to be a more customer-focused and “smart state.” 

Phil Weinzimer: Governor Bruce Rauner has a vision to improve state services for its citizens. He speaks about modernizing and integrating the use and sharing of information. He asked you to lead the technology team. How did that happen?

Hardik Bhatt: Prior to his election, the governor ran a very successful private equity business. His goal as governor is for Illinois to be efficient, accessible, competitive and compassionate. This means the focus has to be on its citizens. One day while at Cisco, leading a global business development organization for the Internet of Things (IoT) practice, I received a call from the governor’s office. They asked me to join the team and help turn around the state of Illinois. The Governor firmly believes that technology will play a crucial role in transforming Illinois, because we are not just talking about a single-dimension transformation, but a multi-dimension digital transformation of the state. I couldn’t resist the challenge, so I joined his team.

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Weinzimer: Some say the public sector is different from the private sector. What’s your take?

Bhatt: I see public sector as a holding company. In our state, we have human services, public safety, roads and transportation, mass transit, safety, animal control, managing natural resources and parks, and a host of other departments that comprise the 38 different agencies, or “businesses,” as I like to call them. We also have the back office that supports these agencies. We have the technology, procurement, personnel, benefits, and other services that support state employees.

On the surface of it, you feel like, yes, public sector has kind of a different way of running its organization. If you dig deeper, then you will see that, again, it has to be run like a business, because even though it is 38 different businesses, at the end of the day, the common denominator is the customer. The customer who is served — whether it’s an individual, or a business, or a tourist — doesn’t understand the complexity of the government. It’s the government’s responsibility to make it easier for the customer to receive services.

Weinzimer: What were some of your initial actions to run the technology organization as a business?

Bhatt: Each major project now has a business case and an expected return on investment. Each major project is broken down into 75-day sprints. Every initiative is divided into multiple 75-days milestones. Why 75 days? In business, we think in terms of quarters. However, in the state, we don’t have that much time. We are trying to transform in four years. We don’t have the luxury of a quarter. Think about a president being elected on the first Tuesday of November, and then taking office on January 20. It’s roughly 74 to 77 days based on the calendar. We have to start thinking along the same lines. If the president can get ready to run the country in 75 days, we have to hit a major milestone every 75 days.

Weinzimer: What is the information and technology strategy to implement Governor Rauner’s vision?

Bhatt: During the first few weeks in my role, I met with many business owners — the agency directors and others — and I discovered that we have a huge technical debt that we are sitting on. Our oldest system goes back to 1974, when I was just starting to crawl. We kept on investing in newer technologies as they came out, but we never took a strategic look at how to “de-invest” from those old technologies that we have. Now we are on a 45-year journey in four years, from 2015 to 2019. How we are defining that is by implementing the following three steps:

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1. Improve the business of IT

We spend close to a billion dollars on technology, the third highest spend in the county, and yet in 2014, a survey ranked us in the bottom 25 percent of states in the use of digitization. We have technology silos across the 38 businesses (agencies) that need to be changed. We need to improve customer service using technology.

We sit on petabytes of data, but all of this data is sitting in siloed systems. There are 2,800 applications in the state of Illinois — 50 systems just for asset management. It’s a very difficult way to understand where all of this information lies. If you are a customer in human services, your data might be in one of the 60 systems that the state of Illinois has. Changing our cost structure and focusing on customer information will help improve the business of IT. Merging all IT silos and creating the new department of innovation and technology, getting ready to roll out the first statewide ERP system, holding performance management sessions to track IT’s performance against key performance indicators every two months, are some of the examples around improving the business of IT.

2. Improve customer service using IT

The public interacts using mobile applications in their private lives. They should also interact with state services using mobile applications. My mom is 70 years old, and she is much more comfortable using iPhone 6 than a computer. I assume that pretty much everybody that has a smartphone, which is more than 70 percent of the population now, would appreciate to interact with their government through a smartphone.

While we do that, we will also ensure Illinois population that is not using smart phones can get all state services through other delivery channels. Analytics is another area where we are focusing to allow the state to use the petabytes of customer data to help make right decisions and provide business intelligence to decision makers and front line employees.

3. Identify areas where we can leapfrog

We are behind compared to many public and private-sector organizations. We can skip a few generations of technology and get straight into 2019. Using IoT solutions to improve state government efficiency is the key to leapfrogging. We see a U.S. state playing three roles in this area. The first is applying smart city solutions to our state government to make it more efficient. The second is to support entrepreneurship and innovation in this area for overall economic growth. Finally, regionalize suburban and rural services through demand aggregation on state’s fiber platform and other tools.

Weinzimer: What challenges have you identified in implementing your technology strategy?

Bhatt: Any transformation of this size obviously has some challenges that we have to think about and prepare for. We are looking at this transformation across the following four key pillars. Each pillar defines a challenge and a mitigation strategy.

1. Customer centricity

We are changing our view of our customers. Currently, we view our customers as taxpayers who are served by each of 38 agencies separately, redundantly and inefficiently. We need to change this. We are making sure that all leadership and front-line employees see the customer as a single entity, and all our energies need to focus on our customers.

2. Operational transformation

We need a single ERP system. Currently, we have over 420 different systems that act like ERP. We have hundreds of different processes used by agencies. Just getting a paperclip requires you to access three systems and four agencies. Those are tremendous operational challenges that we need to transform. We kicked off a unified ERP system last summer, and over the next 36 months — the executive branch, the comptroller’s office, and the treasurer’s office — all will be on a unified SAP platform. This will drive the operational transformation of the state.

3. Cultural transformation

Culture is very hard to change in an organization consisting of many silos. Changing culture requires changes in behavior. The way we tackled this issue was to bring 60-plus CIOs together from all the agencies and start working together as a team. We built 11 working groups to tackle both agency and enterprise challenges such as developing an enterprise strategy for mobile, analytics, geographic information systems, innovation, as well as others. During a recent meeting that included over 100 people, I asked, “How many of you are not part of either a working group or any other collaborative group we created?” Not a single person raised their hand. Everyone was working together. I knew then we were on the right track.

4. Organization transformation

In January, the governor took a major step forward. We broke 38 different IT silos from all of the agencies and created for the first time in the history of the state the department of innovation and technology. This brought all of those 1,700 resources and close to a billion dollars of spend into one powerful group, and moved it from under a shared services organization, to a separate, cabinet-level organization. This will go a long way to not only accelerate and improve the services that the citizens of Illinois deserve.

Weinzimer: What’s your 30-second elevator pitch that summarizes the transformation of the state of Illinois in focusing on customers and providing services with improved use of information and technology?

Bhatt: As I previously mentioned, the governor came into his role with a successful business background, bringing the right business-minded people together. He wants the state to be a compassionate and globally competitive state. We’ve embarked on a 45-year journey that we want to cover in four years, as much as we can. That journey has the following three steps:

  • Improve the business of IT.
  • Improve customer service using IT.
  • Identify areas where we can leapfrog and run them like a business.

We are also running IT like a business by focusing on:

  • 75-day milestones and developing a business case and return on investment for every project.
  • Integrating social, mobile, analytics, cloud, cybersecurity, and IoT into all the services we provide our citizens.
  • The state and the taxpayers as a whole. That’s why we are also focusing on making Illinois a “smarter state,” where we can play these three roles as I mentioned before, and make sure that not just the state government, but the state as a whole moves up and becomes globally competitive.

So a 30-second pitch would be: Illinois is rapidly changing, and value-based technology and business-minded decision making are at the heart of it.

It’s a fun ride, Phil. We are really transforming how the state of Illinois works. We are transforming how citizens get services from us. I’ll tell you, we are looking for partners. We are looking for thought leaders. We are looking for advice. We are also looking for great minds and great brains. If your readers want to partner with us, want to come join us, I have an open invitation to talk to them and see how we can work together.

About Hardik Bhatt

Bhatt is a renaissance CIO. He is focused, visionary, and leverages information and technology to enable Governor Rauner’s vision of transforming Illinois into an efficient, accessible, competitive, and compassionate state that is governed like a business.

Watch my full in-depth interview with Bhatt below to find out more about his strategy to make Illinois a “smart state.” You can also read his daily posts on LinkedIn.