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State IT needs piling up; requests could top $400M

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Feb. 10, 2013 at 11:11 am | No Comments »
February 10, 2013 11:20 am

My Sunday report about the rent coming due on the State Data Center is only the latest installment in a long-running story. But the request that lawmakers approve a $25.1 million subsidy to cover least payments on the $255 million project is just a fraction of the information technology requests going to lawmakers this year.

In recent testimony before House and Senate budget committees, the state’s new chief information officer Michael Cockrill presented an overview suggesting there are close to $400 million in new spending requests for IT. Projects on the list are ranked, and Cockrill says security is his first priority in his new job after serious data-hacking incidents in other states in recent months.

Washington spends close to $1 billion a year on IT services, staffing and technology, according to the state’s technology strategy outlined last year by the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

But Cockrill indicated that – not even two weeks into his new job – he hopes to have a “plan for a plan” soon for moving forward on consolidating the state’s collection of data centers in Thurston County. The number has shrunk from about 42 sites to 14 already.

He also said technology can help make employees more efficient, but large agencies – Revenue and Employment Security are two he mentioned – are still stuck in old programs that use computer code from previous generations such as COBOL.

“Our old systems are locking us into being very slow to move and costly to change,’’ Cockrill told one committee.

Lawmakers are moving with caution on new requests after learning the data center was built larger than the state needs for future data storage and retrieval. A report from consultant Excipio in late 2010 explains what the state needs compared to what the center provides, and that report outlined options OFM had in its development of a business plan to recoup taxpayer investments in the data center.

Details about the other IT spending requests were left out of my story because of space concerns. Lawmakers are not making commitments to the requests other than acknowledging they have no choice about paying debt service on the data center.

Key lawmakers – House Appropriations Committee chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina; Rep. Gary Alexander, the ranking House Republican on budget; and Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, vice chairman of Senate Ways and Means – all say it is too early to decide what lawmakers may do with all the IT spending requests they have received.

If anything is clear, Hunter said security is a top concern, and he noted there have been recent hacking incidents in other states. Cockrill also said security is the state’s immediate priority.

Hunter has said that some IT investments save money, a point also made by Cockrill and other tech experts who spoke to lawmakers in recent weeks. But funding could compete with other vital programs such as K-12 public schools and universities.

Of the $378 million sought by former governor Chris Gregoire, $61 million would come out of the state’s general fund that also pays for public schools, prisons, and many general government-agency functions.

Some of the proposals would be paid by certificates of participation, a financing tool that in effect uses increased rents or user fees and avoids the state debt limit. But Hunter said he is “not excited” by the prospect of COPs.

Meanwhile, IT wizards from state agencies made presentations to lawmakers in recent weeks, painting a picture of a state information-technology system that is well behind the times.

One of the biggest critics of state IT spending and especially the data center project is Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat with a background in the cell-phone and software industries. The chief information officer is a result of Carlyle’s work since 2009 to bring a broader, strategic look at the state’s IT needs and costs.

Carlyle says the data center project’s costs and the fact it was built larger than was needed has “at least turned into a teachable moment.’’

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