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New IT Agency Haunted By Past Failures

Florida State University's server farm at Innovation Park

The state of Florida is one step closer to creating an agency dedicated to streamlining how the state implements technology. But, this is the Sunshine State’s second crack at an IT Agency – its last ended in disappointment. Now, some wonder if this iteration is doomed to repeat past failures.

Think of all the people at Florida State University -- 40-thousand students, and more than 8-thousand staff and faculty. Now understand those people all need access to computers and the internet and other electronics used in the administration of classes and more than $200-million in research grants.

A large chunk of that responsibility falls here: the largest of three server farms at Innovation Park on Tallahassee’s southwest side. FSU Technology’s Director of Operational Services, Randy McCausland slides his security card and opens the door to a room filled with numbers and letters on the walls that function like GPS coordinate directions to each server tower. Almost every piece of electronic communication runs through this room and McCausland said without a single, dedicated department to handle the massive amounts of information, the university would grind to a halt.

“One having a highly decentralized model like that would represent a significant integration challenge; each unit would be responsible for bringing resources to bear to facilitate that integration so their discrete system would be operational. But, from a cost perspective, it would be a massive duplication of resources,” McCausland shouted over the hum of the university’s servers.

McCausland added it would unconscionable for one of the largest public universities in Florida NOT to have a department dedicated to Information Technology. He said it’s one of the only ways to ensure effective interdepartmental communication and internet security. Now imagine a group as large as Florida’s state government not having its own IT Agency. In fact, it doesn’t. Florida is the only state without a Chief Information Officer, even though it’s mandated by state law. Margate Democratic Senator Jeremy Ring, Chair of the Senate committee filing a bill to change that, explained the state’s original IT Agency lacked proper funding and any real authority.

“It had no teeth. We didn’t pay for you know, a real Chief Information Officer, of high quality. There was minimal consolidation, in fact, other than the data centers, almost none,” Ring said in a phone interview Thursday.

The Agency for Enterprise Information Technology couldn’t force any state department to follow its recommendations and AEIT hasn’t received a single dollar in appropriations since 2012. That's when lawmakers came closest to replacing the agency after both houses passed a bill later vetoed by the Governor. That veto effectively neutered AEIT by cutting its funding and not providing a replacement. However, after the disastrous rollout of Florida’s unemployment benefits website, CONNECT; legislators and the Governor alike seem poised to finally make the proposed legislation law…again.  Ira Hobbs is a former Deputy Secretary of Information Technology at the U.S. Department of Treasury. He points out the problems Florida had with CONNECT’s rollout are perfect examples of why having an IT Agency is so important.

“In a technological society like ours, information technology is extremely important. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about food stamps delivery, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about traffic between highway patrolmen, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking transportation. Information technology is somehow, in one shape, form or fashion is there,” Hobbs said.

Senator Ring and his colleagues on the Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee are looking to avoid familiar pitfalls. Still, the bill is somewhat problematic because it exempts constitutional officers like the Agriculture Commissioner and Attorney General from some of the IT Agency’s recommendations. Ira Hobbs had an analogy for that.

“If you have your own house, your married, you got three, four kids, imagine what would happen every one of you went to the telephone company and had your own phone installed. It gets to be rather problematic and quite expensive,” Hobbs said.

Ring admits he would’ve liked the agency to have more teeth, but he believes it’ll have enough authority to streamline the state’s technology. 

“Even the agencies that are exempted have to follow the best practices set forth by this new department and two we have a provision in the bill that for any large project, with a large threshold for $50-million which for example would be when we deploy a new financial management system or new personnel system in the state,” Ring said.

Ring is asking for $5-million in initial appropriations, while Governor Rick Scott has offered $3-million in his budget. But will that be enough? Ring says yes. He argues because most of the agency’s staff would be people already on Florida’s payroll, it doesn’t require a significant amount of funding.

If the Information Technology bill becomes law, the Governor will appoint a Chief Information Officer whose agency will work out of the Department of Management Services.