Washington State's CIO on the Impending ‘Sea Change’ in Purchasing Government IT

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WATCH: As Michael Cockrill leaves public service, he reflected with Route Fifty on rebranding ‘public service’ and how purchasing IT is fundamentally changing.

Washington state Chief Information Officer Michael Cockrill announced he is leaving his position at the end of October to return to the private sector. In five years serving as the state’s technology leader, Cockrill has made substantial changes to the organization, preparing it both culturally and organizationally for the future of government information technology.

In a wide ranging conversation at the National Association of State Chief Information Officer’s annual meeting earlier this month, Cockrill laid out everything from his state’s experiment with eliminating managers to the upcoming “sea change” in government technology heralded by California’s work with Code for America and 18F.

Cockrill has been one for experimentation when it comes to state information technology services, and substantial changes have been made in the state’s technology DNA over the course of his tenure. As part of the state’s 2015 biennial budget, Cockrill’s Office of the Chief Information Officer merged with two other departments to form Washington Technology Solutions, or WaTech, which he has led ever since. In this new organization, Cockrill has put an emphasis on excellence in service to the agencies which are WaTech’s customers.

“We’re fighting against 20 years of the perspective that people just had to use our services,” Cockrill told Route Fifty. He feels now, though, the organization is “on a good trajectory.” Finances are under control, satisfaction of government agencies with technology services has increased—and, if agencies are not satisfied, they are allowed to purchase beyond WaTech, in what Cockrill termed an “eat what you kill” model.

The state has also embarked on an all-out rebranding to find the right people to fulfill its technology mission.

“At the top level, internally, we refer to it as reinventing the brand public service,” Cockrill explained. With a “negative unemployment in the IT space” in Washington, he believes there was a need to find new calls to state public service for millennials, veterans and others.

“It used to be that good enough for government work was the gold standard. If something was good enough for government work that was the very best that could possibly be,” Cockrill said. “Over time, good enough for government work has… created pictures of people leaning on their shovels. So that’s the way we approach it—how do we reinvent the brand public service?”

Part of that reinvention includes experimentation with the workforce. With assistance from Harvard, Cockrill and WaTech eliminated managers among 200 of its workers and set up a “holacracy.”

“Holacracy is a different kind of governance, it’s a different way to organize your work, and the hallmark of it is that it doesn’t have any managers,” Cockrill explained. Instead of being tied to an organizational chart, individuals are tied to certain work products under a holacracy. “The idea of no managers in government is a little bit heretical, but we’ve been doing it … hand-in-hand with our union.”

While statistical results are still coming in (according to Cockrill, “some people liked it, some people didn’t”), it’s the attempt at new approaches that seems to breed excitement around the holacracy experiment.

“People in the private sector think you work for government because you can’t get a better job, and what I found out is that the people who work in government are truly mission driven people, and they do it out of a sense of trying to give something back,” Cockrill explained, and cited as the reason a public service position he expected to stay in for only a couple years extended to five.

When asked what he sees around the corner for state IT that he will be sorry to miss out on, Cockrill predicted a major change to big government procurements.

“The same transition that has been happening in the private sector for the last five or six years around customer-centric design, around agile practices, around open source—those are all beginning to take hold in government,” he explained.

Cockrill cited the California state’s recent revamp of their child welfare system. With assistance from Code for America and the federal government information technology agency 18F, the state decided against procuring a monolithic IT system to a myriad of smaller service-based contracts that can be done in an “iterative” manner. In a month, the team moved from a draft of a “1,500 page contracting document” to a “10-page Statement of Work with another 60 pages of mandatory contracting language.”

According to Cockrill: “California represents kind of sea change, and I don’t see that we will ever go back, both because of market dynamics, but also because that’s what the authorizing environment—the funding environment—is demanding that government do.”

“That’s a big transition… I’ll miss being involved in that.”

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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