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Exclusive: CIO of the Year on What's Next

As Chief Information Officer and Agency Information Officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Russ Nichols supervises technology across over 30 prisons, encompassing about 130,000 inmates. He was among the winners of a CIO of the Year Award for 2017-18 from the California Public Sector CIO Academy.

Deputy State CIO Russ Nichols
Techwire: What can you tell us about CDCR’s use of technology business management (TBM)?

Nichols: We’ve got a set budget and number of people in this department. My interest is making sure we’re working on the right thing that gets the biggest bang for the buck for the department. To do that, we’ve got to know where we’re spending our people and our dollars. Depending on who you talk to, it’s [TBM] is a governance or technology business management, but I think we’re all talking about the same thing.

We are trying to quantify for each one of our services. What does it cost us? Whether it’s licensing, software, paying staff, the number of people who work on it, any equipment or network or things that go with supporting that service. How do we quantify that email cost us $100,000 a year, and our help desk costs us $50,000 and something else costs a third amount? And then, how do you measure the value that each one of those things puts back into the department so you can figure out at the end of the day, if you’re spending on the right things or make intentional choices. I’ll shut off something, even though it’s good, or I’ll turn it down so that I can afford to do something that’s better without getting more money or people, in other words, create our own capacity to make better decisions.

Techwire: Does it allow the 360-degree view? There’s a lot of different sites and tech. What tools enable you to keep all of that in mind?

Nichols: We run our books, our financial records on SAP. I know most departments don’t have that luxury but that gives us our back office, our bookkeeping, it runs financials and procurement so we can pull information out of that, but it’s still really hard to quantify down to a product or service level. We’re maturing just like everyone else is. I know CalPERS brought in a tool, and they do a lot of hand entry in their data but it allows them to do some analysis. We’re still at the phase where we’re doing a lot of that by hand, spreadsheets and management conversations, not necessarily fed out of our back-end system. This is one of those things where you can get into a time-and-motion study of every employee that’s permanent — "Tell me everything you do every five minutes of every day" — and you’ll spend more money keeping track of that information than trying to use it.

Techwire: What’s next for CDCR?

Nichols: We have an IT Governance Committee that already exists. They will help us establish the priorities in the department that then we as an IT group will manage toward. With that set of priorities, and with us walking into the room, saying, "This is where we're spending things," my IT management team can take those two perspectives and bring them together and recommend how to lay it out and here are the issues. We might move email from being run by 10 people down to six people so that we can take four and do something with some other service, GPS tracking of offenders or whatever it is. The intent is to be able to adjust with priorities of the department without having to go through a two-year BCP [budget change proposal] request cycle, there are projects where that is appropriate, but we want to create enough capacity inside, just by improvements in efficiency and spending on the right things that we dramatically reduce that timeline.

Techwire: What are you reading?

Nichols: The Federalist Papers, which sounds really boring but it is a spinoff from reading the Hamilton biography. And another book called Switch.

Techwire: Now that you've won CIO of the Year, what's next?

Nichols: CDCR is ripe for automation. Corrections is a labor-intensive process, especially with rehabilitation. There is so much opportunity to help with that rehabilitative process using technology, beyond what we can do with people. We are confined in our number of sites, in our number of teachers, in our number of hours in the day. Technology can help reach much farther into our population and deliver content and programs to folks that would otherwise not have access. I feel really strongly that we can help transform what the organization does. 

I think as we start to really leverage this, we can have a dramatic impact on getting people out of a correctional environment and back into their families, back into the workforce, more effectively than we can imagine.

Kayla Nick-Kearney was a staff writer for Techwire from March 2017 through January 2019.