Arkansas CTO Yessica Jones sees benefit of interstate cooperation

Multi-state IT collaboration efforts are on the rise as Arkansas and Oklahoma forge a unique cross boundary data center collocation initiative. Arkansas' CTO ma...

Ever since I was introduced to state government in 1992, as Massachusetts’ first state chief information officer, I have been intrigued by interstate cooperation involving information technology.

The first initiatives I saw in this area involved new electronic benefit transfer (EBT) systems which replaced benefits such as unemployment benefits, welfare payments and food stamps which were paper-based checks or vouchers. EBT allowed the benefits to be automated through the issuance of payment cards to beneficiaries who could then redeem their benefits at banks or even retail stores.

With the New England states being relatively close geographically it made sense to consider cross state jurisdictional cooperation for EBT acceptance, and this strategy was adopted, eventually including New York as well in the EBT Northeast Coalition of States program.

Ever since that time I have been a strong proponent of similar state IT cooperation. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see states consolidating their motor vehicle departments, but the federal government has leaned in this direction somewhat by encouraging states to reuse large social service-related software systems that were federally funded. The idea was that if the feds funded the child support system in New Hampshire, it was a good idea to uses the same basic system for California. Not surprisingly this particular tactic had unfortunate results, leading me to eventually terminate the $300 million project back in 1998. However, the idea for intergovernmental IT cooperation continues and has spawned some more successful results.

Arkansas state Chief Technology Officer Yessica Jones

Arkansas-Oklahoma data center collocation

In Arkansas, state Chief Technology Officer Yessica Jones is spearheading a statewide data center consolidation effort with a unique cross state strategy.

“We are a highly decentralized state. So, the main goal is to centralize IT infrastructure into one of our data centers and utilize a collocation plan which we have put together in a great partnership with the state of Oklahoma,” she said.

Interestingly, this plan was hatched during a National Association of State Chief Information Officers conference last year.

“I’ll tell you, that’s the beauty of NASCIO. It happened in one of our ‘CIO only’ sessions,” Jones said. She recalled speaking with Bo Reese, Oklahoma’s CIO. “We always talk about what are we’re working on. And we were talking about my data center optimization effort.” So Jones decided to just throw the question out there to Bo saying, “What if I used your data center? And he goes, ‘What if I use yours?’”

With that Jones and Reese decided to give this collocation significant consideration. They both tasked their teams to see what was feasible, practical, cost effective and legal.

“It took a while, but we got it done. It goes back to don’t be afraid to ask. It’s a great partnership and cost savings for both of us,” Jones said.

From 45 cabinet departments to 15

In addition to Arkansas’ data center consolidation efforts another significant initiative involved those always tricky governance issues that state CIO’s face. Jones, appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March 2017, became director of the Department of Information Systems, and one of 40 direct reports to the governor. I speculated on the size of the cabinet meeting room. However, that all changed last July through a government reorganization initiative which reduced the cabinet to 15 departments, and Jones’ department became the Division of Information Services reporting to the Department of Transformation and Shared Services. Jones’ boss is DTSS Secretary Amy Fecher.

“We have a great relationship and meet on a weekly basis. We’re constantly thinking about what initiatives we’re going to be working on and how we really need to start thinking about statewide solutions. She understands the importance of technology in state government. So we feel very confident that we’re in good hands,” Jones said.

This transformation effort in one important sense certainly has made Jones’ job easier. Rather than 40 some departments to oversee, she now relies on her relationships with the 15 department CIOs. “So just imagine the level of communication that you have to have in trying to build those 44 relationships. Getting buy-in was a huge task. Now having those 15 CIOs, it has been transformational, honestly.”

Jones created a steering committee composed of the department CIOs.

“We want to get them involved when we’re trying to implement a statewide solution and it’s critical that you get feedback and input,” she said. Jones feels that collaboration is better than it was in the past. “We’ve seen it through not only the data center optimization effort but also with the roll out of Office 365 and other projects as well.”

I have been the beneficiary, and the victim of government CIO reorganization efforts both in Massachusetts and California, and I’ve followed them closely across the country. I am happy to see that Arkansas’ is working out so well. In addition, NASCIO has a popular awards program and one category is Cross-Boundary Collaboration and Partnerships. I hope that the unique data center collocation initiative with Arkansas and Oklahoma will receive appropriate consideration in 2020.

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