The Man Behind Illinois’ Digital Revolution

When Illinois deployed its first state computer system in 1974, Hardik Bhatt was just 2 years old. Since then, Illinois has deployed thousands of systems–one for every 20 of the state’s 60,000 employees, to be exact–with little or no thought given to how they should all work together.

Forty-two years later, Illinois’ IT challenges have become Bhatt’s challenges. Just 17 months into his tenure as the state’s chief information officer and head of the newly created Department of Innovation and Technology, Bhatt is helping to lead one of the biggest turnarounds in state and local technology.

Since March 2015, Bhatt has served as the point man for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s so-called “digital revolution,” which is aimed squarely at reversing decades of uncontrolled and uncoordinated IT spending. When Bhatt arrived in Illinois, there was a central administrative service called Central Management Services that had responsibility for procurement, benefits, personnel, and property. A bureau within CMS managed IT services. But the state’s IT infrastructure was a confusing mess of disjointed systems.

“Every agency had their own technology organization, their own CIO, and their own application development organization,” Bhatt said, in an interview with MeriTalk. “And there was no concept of enterprise thinking.”

Illinois was also one of the only states that didn’t have an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. “We had 420 systems that managed our finances and procurement, and grants,” Bhatt said. “We have 50 licensing systems, we have 30 asset management systems–you name it, we have it in multitudes because every agency just went out and bought what they wanted to buy for that particular moment. We invested in everything that came out as a new technology. We have every flavor. We have 3,000 different systems in operation in the state between 60,000 employees. That’s one system for every 20 employees.”

Hardik Bhatt, Illinois' Secretary Designate, Department of Innovation & Technology, and State CIO. (Photo: LinkedIn)
Hardik Bhatt, Illinois’ Secretary Designate,
Department of Innovation & Technology,
and State CIO. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Forty-Five in Four

Rauner’s grand strategy to reverse Illinois’ out-of-control IT investments rests on the shoulders of Bhatt and the new Department of Innovation and Technology, which the governor created by executive order in January.

According to Bhatt, the formation of the new organization and the elevation of his position is a major change in direction, bringing all of the state’s 1,700 IT employees and close to $1 billion in spending from 38 agencies under this new umbrella.

“Basically, with one stroke of a pen, he turned IT from a commodity to a Cabinet position,” Bhatt said.

Bhatt’s team refers to the new enterprise IT strategy as 45-in-4. “The end of the first term of this administration is 2019, so we have to do a 45-year journey in four years,” he said.

Fortunately for Illinois, Bhatt brings the right mix of private and public sector experience to the table. He most recently spent five years at Cisco Systems as the company’s global head of business development for Internet of Things (IoT). Before that, Bhatt served as the CIO for the City of Chicago. And before that, he did a stint at Oracle. So when Bhatt talks technology, he talks about it in the context of supporting an enterprise business strategy. At the tactical level, he talks about a three-step process.

Step 1

The first step in Bhatt’s plan is to improve the business of IT throughout the state.

“IT will not be driving the business priorities, it will be done the right way,” said Bhatt.

“There will be an enterprise governance structure at the enterprise level as well as at the agency cluster level,” he said, referring to the vertical agency groupings that have been formed around seven common verticals, such as health and human services, and public safety. “The agency directors will be sitting on the board and they will be defining the business priorities. And then technology will align itself to the business priorities.”

Bhatt has also set up performance management sessions, started defining the return on investment (ROI) and benefits of each IT projects, stopped a few projects that did not have a defined ROI, and started requiring business cases for every investment agencies wanted to make. These were major changes for Illinois. Under the previous model, “we were the third highest spending state in terms of technology spending in the country and we were ranked in the bottom 25 percent when it came to outcomes,” he said.

Step 2

Step 2 is about leveraging IT to improve the business of state government.

“We are going to start delivering one app per month starting this month, either citizen focused or employee focused, for things like inspection automation, or business license access and renewals,” he said.

Illinois also started an analytics practice late last year. Bhatt spent a day with officials from Indiana, which is considered a leader in analytics deployments across the country, to come up with a sound strategy for improving agency-to-agency data sharing.

“One of the lessons we learned is the biggest thing in analytics is data sharing between all of the agencies. Indiana spent 18 months creating one-on-one data sharing agreements between IT and various agencies. And they said that if they had to do it all over again they would create an enterprise agreement that everybody signs,” Bhatt said. “So we learned that and we took that and started that process in October 2015. By May we had 13 agencies signed on to an enterprise agreement that will now freely allow us to share data with each other.”

Illinois is also building an internal team for analytics. The idea is to create a team for reactive analytics, sort of looking in the rear-view mirror and providing a report, and also predictive analytics that will help the state intervene early in health issues, education, and other areas.

Step 3

The third and final step of Bhatt’s plan is identifying areas where Illinois can leapfrog in technologies and take a leadership position across the country.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in my career working on smart cities,” Bhatt said. “One of the things I observed right away when I arrived is that nobody is thinking about smart states. A state is actually a superset of multiple cities. We started working on defining what a smart state is. An internal survey found that 7 percent of our agencies are already working on smart city/IoT solutions,” he said.

Bhatt views the state as an enabler of the IoT economy. Smaller towns and areas that are not attractive to IoT companies because of their lack of population density can take advantage of the state’s aggregator role, especially given Illinois’ 2,000 miles of fiber and statewide procurement authority. “So we are looking at aggregating the demand outside of Chicago through fiber and statewide procurement, so that we can actually have these other cities, towns, and municipalities also start leveraging the smart cities solutions,” he said.

Dan Verton
About Dan Verton
MeriTalk Executive Editor Dan Verton is a veteran journalist and winner of the First Place Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for Best News Reporting -- the highest award in the nation for business/trade journalism. Dan earned a Master's Degree in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C., and has spent the last 20 years in the nation's capital reporting on government, enterprise technology, policy and national cybersecurity. He’s also a former intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps, has authored three books on cybersecurity, and has testified on critical infrastructure protection before both House and Senate committees.
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