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Amid Budget Gridlock, Illinois CIO Tries To Innovate

Amid the continued budget gridlock impacting the state, one area where Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration has shown positive impact is actually a more technical one. Illinois improved from a ‘mediocre’ grade of C+ in 2014 to a B+ in the Center for Digital Government’s 2016 Digital States Survey, a nationwide ranking of the use and adoption of technology in government services. But what does this mean for citizens across the state and our everyday lives? Chicago Inno sat down with Hardik Bhatt, the state’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) and the man responsible for executing Illinois’ digital strategy, to find out.

Inno: What does it mean to be the CIO of a state? Is this a new position, or did you have a predecessor?

Bhatt: To help people understand my job, I like to give the example of a specific use case of a government service, let’s say children in foster care. Earlier (before the deeper integration of technology in government), for every new ‘record entry’ of a foster child that entered the system, the government would take up to 14 days to get notified and respond as needed to ensure the child’s well-being. I was hired in March 2015 to modernize this technology infrastructure and ensure its security.

While my position did exist previously, my department, the Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology (DoIT) has significantly consolidated subdivisions in an effort to streamline processes and remove silos — I manage 38 subdivisions with over 1,700 IT employees and a budget greater than $1 billion. These subdivisions — clusters like health & human services, workforce development, security infrastructure — are now coordinated to ensure we are not ‘reinventing the wheel.’

Inno: You spent over fifteen years in the private sector, with positions at Cisco and Oracle before transitioning to the public sector. What drew you to the public sector and what lessons did you bring to it from the private sector?

Bhatt: Just like the private sector, in government I let business define the opportunity for where we should invest our resources. Each major project that the government undertakes has to have a business case and an expected return on investment. I have carried forward the concept of key performance indicators (KPIs) and calendar quarters into ‘75 day sprints’ for targeting milestones, because in government we are answerable to constituents on a much shorter basis.

My foray into the public sector initially stemmed from watching my father serve in the Indian judicial system — I have always wanted to give back as part of my career. Before Cisco, I also served for a while as the CIO for the City of Chicago under Democratic Mayor Richard Daley — and now as I serve under a Republican Governor, I see the investment in technology as a priority that transcends bipartisan politics.

Inno: What is your process for reaching out to the public — the constituents and everyday citizens — to ensure that your work creates an impact across the state, and not just in pockets of large cities that can afford smart technology?

Bhatt: This continues to be priority for my department – I’m frequently on the road talking to constituents and mayors of villages and towns across the state. We recently opened an RFP (request for proposals) for ‘smart street lighting’ — companies will bid on the statewide master contract for energy efficient lighting, the benefits of which will be passed along to local municipal organizations. Furthermore, in partnership with companies like GE, Microsoft and Cisco, we’ve also created a free data analytics curriculum available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection.

Inno: Our audience includes local tech entrepreneurs, who may also see the state as a potential customer for IT contracts. What technologies excite you as having valuable applications in government? What are your goals for your department’s continued impact?

Bhatt: In talking to entrepreneurs at incubators across the state – including emerging ones in areas like Peoria, Bloomington, Springfield and Champaign – it is clear that technology and automation will continue to impact workforce in manufacturing and other industries. I have my eye on several emerging trends — autonomous vehicles, AR/VR, artificial intelligence, blockchain and robotics. Our goals are to reach 80% citizen interactions across the state on mobile, and 70% of our data on the cloud by the end of 2018.

Inno: Recently, a news story broke of some of your professional memberships — specifically with  CIO Leadership Council of the Virginia-based executive-assistance organization CEB Inc — costing the state upto $208,000 so far over your tenure. Can you clarify why that membership is important?

Bhatt: It’s important to note that the membership — which provides access to tremendous amounts of research assisting us in our day-to-day work — is a single membership but providing multiple user access. It is in lieu of expensive technology strategy consultants and over 200 government entities across the country have access to this or similar memberships, which are either not as extensive or which cost even more. I can credit a lot of the success so far in transforming Illinois into a smart state to the benefits derived from this membership — best practices, diagnostic tools, networking, advisory support and learning events.

(Interview edited for length and clarity)

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