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Tech tangle: Florida's computer systems are being consolidated

David Taylor
David Taylor, the state's chief information officer [Photo: Jessica Mulholland]
One of Gov. Jeb Bush's early moves after he took office in 1999 was to create a State Technology Office to oversee the modernization and consolidation of state government's computer and IT systems. For years, individual agencies had made their own IT decisions, leaving the state with nearly two dozen data centers, 30-plus e-mail systems, 200 different IT groups and 150 websites. Bush believed merging those systems and centralizing control of IT operations would make government more efficient and allow the state to take advantage of economies of scale.

The project stumbled almost from the start. The tenures of the first two chief information officers were controversial. Both resigned; afterward, auditors found problems with how contracts and agency finances had been managed. The third CIO, Simone Marstiller, canceled the questionable contracts, but the missteps left a shadow over the agency, and in 2005 the Legislature eliminated its funding.

Meanwhile, the problems associated with the unconsolidated tech systems didn't go away.

In 2007, the Legislature created the Agency for Enterprise Information Technology to handle the consolidation efforts and create IT policy — but lawmakers have kept the agency on a tight leash.

"We've been designed to be a small agency with a small staff with a large mission in our hands," says CIO David Taylor, 55, who has been running the office since 2008.

The department, with a staff of 16 and a budget of $1.6 million, can't dictate what systems other agencies should use and purchase. Instead, it advises the Department of Management Services on strategies like bulk buying and works with other agencies to standardize specifications for equipment to help facilitate volume purchases. The other agencies, however, aren't required to follow the advice of Taylor's department.

Under Taylor, the state is one-third of the way through consolidating more than 60 data centers into three locations — a move that will save taxpayers about $9 million a year for 10 years. Taylor is also leading a consolidation of the state's e-mail systems, which will save another $10 million to $15 million a year.

Untouched, however, are bigger IT targets — core business systems, accounting systems and licensing systems, for example.

The need to proceed isn't just a matter of savings from consolidation. As a generation of government workers retires over the next several years, the state's various IT departments will lose many professionals versed in older programming languages like COBOL and dBASE IV. Most younger IT grads aren't trained in those languages.

The state is also wrestling with other IT-related issues — the need to maintain Twitter updates and Facebook postings, for instance, which are considered public records.

Cybersecurity is also an issue, says Taylor. "We've seen some very targeted attacks on certain agencies to get certain information. We've seen attacks to obtain financial benefit. Sometimes they're based on trying to get advantages in contracts."

Taylor believes that the state would be better served by "one unified IT agency" with some teeth to do something — and he's not alone. Last December, the Florida Government Efficiency Task Force, a 15-member panel that provides cost-cutting strategies to the Legislature, recommended giving the agency budget and procurement authority for "enterprise" projects and services and giving it the power to enforce its standards.

In the meantime, Taylor accepts the state's go-slow approach. "We should demonstrate that we can be successful in our current consolidation efforts before taking on even greater challenges."