King County’s Cloud Smarts

King County, home of Seattle, is bringing its legacy technology into the modern era with a new private cloud. Spearheaded by CIO William Kehoe, the transformation is the latest in a line of initiatives brought about by the county’s reorganized and refocused IT team.

Governments have reputations for bureaucratic inertia—in many cases for good reason. Strategies, systems, and policies get entrenched and perpetuate for decades because substantive change takes extraordinary effort and strong leadership.

Technology, on the other hand, changes rapidly, and governments often have a tougher time than the private sector keeping current with IT. But public sector organizations that do fast forward to the future reap huge benefits. Recent enterprise IT developments, such as server virtualization and cloud computing, can enable great leaps in efficiency and in the quality of service to the public.

William Kehoe, CIO for King County, Washington, a 13,000-employee organization that serves Seattle and nearby communities, has moved his IT unit far down that road of transition. In addition to moving to the cloud and standardized systems, he has completely restructured the county IT organizational structure and the way it delivers services. As an agent of sweeping organizational change, Kehoe has learned that the human element is more challenging to manage than the technological one.

When Kehoe stepped into the county CIO role in August 2010, he presided over a decentralized staff of 430 employees spread among multiple offices and facilities. These teams managed unconnected, siloed systems. With more than 1,600 IT application solutions to maintain and support, the county was spending a bundle on outdated technology. It was an unsustainable model that needed drastic change.

Kehoe’s first step was to create a central IT department to replace department-level shops, a process that was completed in July 2011. With IT staff no longer reporting to a business area, the new organizational structure would take some getting used to—both for staff and clientele. If that wasn’t enough change, Kehoe would soon implement a system whereby departments place an order and are charged for each service performed by the central IT unit. This initiative demanded a big upfront labor investment—7,000 staff hours—to devise a catalog with rates for seventeen specific services.

The efforts produced “a more efficient service structure based on outputs, not inputs,” Kehoe says. “We changed the conversation with stakeholders.” IT morphed from units that primarily only looked at the needs of their departments to one large provider taking a countywide consultative, strategic approach.

“That’s how we could introduce new platforms like the cloud,” Kehoe says. Consolidating servers, moving to the cloud, and standardizing applications will save the county millions in the long run. For example, moving most processing and storage functions to the cloud has allowed the county to reduce its data centers from twenty-eight to two. The countywide adoption of cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 has streamlined the technology architecture, which has made it easier to standardize services through all departments. These two initiatives will save untold hours in maintenance and training.

While Kehoe won the backing of county leaders for the organizational and technological transformation, he nevertheless had a formidable challenge to sell the plan to King County’s IT staff. “A big part of it was getting me out in various forums to communicate IT strategy so all staff would know where they fit in and how valuable they are,” he says.

The new alignment benefits IT staff at all levels, as it allows for more opportunities for training in new skills and for movement among disciplines. Staffers are also encouraged to bring ideas forward to improve efficiency and service. Training opportunities in the latest applications and platforms, along with exposure to a wider range of challenges, give IT personnel many more opportunities to become well-rounded professionals. This has boosted internal support for the transition.

The county’s departmental managers were also wary of IT staff centralization at first, fearing that the lack of technical specialists embedded in their offices would mean less attentive service. And with a new ticketing system that queues orders for IT services, department managers wondered if their needs would be met quickly enough.

To help alleviate those fears, Kehoe installed senior staff members as IT liaisons for each department. Based on site at each departmental office, these senior IT staffers report directly to Kehoe and advocate for each department’s IT needs. If an urgent request gets lost in the shuffle, the matter can be escalated to the boss. “That made things more palatable,” Kehoe says. Service-level agreements with a majority of the departments provide departmental managers additional comfort.

Kehoe waited until after the IT reorganization was completed and departmental managers had become accustomed to the new structure before introducing the fee-for-service system. “If we had tried to do both at the same time, it would have been too much change all at once,” Kehoe says. The new arrangement frees up IT departmental liaisons to focus fully on their clients. “They actually have more time to devote to serving the business units now, because they no longer have the operational and staff oversight responsibilities,” Kehoe says.

Benefits of the new IT environment to the county are numerous. “It’s easier to set direction based on new technology,” Kehoe says, “and it allows us to move much faster than in the past, when we had eight or nine individual IT departments. IT is better aligned with the county strategic plan.”

The savings from IT operations are welcome—the county is saving $700,000 annually from the implementation of a private cloud/standard virtual environment. At the same time, worries have been reduced over how to keep legacy systems running as staffers with expertise in older applications and languages retire. The changes have been dramatic and sudden, especially by government standards. The pejorative phrase, “good enough for government work,” certainly doesn’t apply to King County’s IT department.