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Is Collaboration the Cure for the Ails of State IT Projects?

The term 'collaboration' gets thrown around a lot in the tech space, but as California officials on the heels of a massive public safety initiative contend, it's the best way of doing IT in government.

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — The term "collaboration" gets thrown around a lot in the technology space, but as state officials on the heels of a massive public safety initiative contend, it's the best way of doing IT in government.
On top of the traditional challenges facing government, panelists at the California Public Sector CIO Academy’s discussion on Success Through Collaboration said working toward a common goal can help mitigate risks and costs as well as lead to more solid outcomes.
A recent cooperative effort between the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and California Department of Parks and Recreation to replace outdated computer-aided dispatch systems brought about an opportunity to meet the needs of both agencies and provide a better public safety value to taxpayers.
Mike Dust, assistant chief of the CHP’s Information Management Division, said the project initially started as a single-agency undertaking, but expanded once another department showed interest.
“A few years back we had the opportunity when we were trying to reach out and upgrade our computer-aided dispatch,” he said. “It was an antiquated, older system, and we needed to upgrade it. We had an opportunity to work with the Department of Parks and Rec in a collaborative environment to bring them in with our project.”
Both agencies were in need of the critical upgrades to the dispatch system, but Phil Minas, CIO of the Parks and Recreation Department, said the lifesaving tool was far from modernized at the outset.
Once the needs were identified and dialog was underway, both agencies began to develop an interagency agreement, identify their respective goals and formalize their partnering efforts.
“It was a pretty amazing project. The collaboration was intense, and it was at all levels of both organizations with steering committees. We had consultants come in; we followed the project guidelines to the letter,” Minas said. “We did a lot of things right and a few things wrong along the way. But it was fascinating to figure out what the differences were between our organizations and what the commonalities were and that we could actually see a vision to where we could make something like this work.”
Despite a common goal and the vendor resources to complete the project, Dust said most of the work came down to hashing out the details contained within the interagency agreement.
"The system part of it, the actual product we were purchasing, making that work for both agencies wasn’t necessarily the biggest hurdle," he said. "It was the expectation between the two agencies working together in that interagency agreement that caused most of any hurdles that came up."
The result of their efforts was a system that could also be provided to agencies outside the initial project. Minas said just as the CHP had essentially filled the vendor role for Parks and Recreation, his agency was able to act as the vendor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 
“In effect, CHP was our vendor. That’s how it turned out, where they were actually supplying dispatch services for us," he said. "Then to further the collaboration, we could provide modern dispatch services to Fish and Wildlife. It wasn’t just the collaboration here; it was downstream too.”
The fact that the CHP unveiled its more extensive system ahead of Parks and Recreation also added the ability to troubleshoot problems that hadn't been identified earlier for its own launch. “There was a lot of opportunity for lessons learned in this project," said Minas. "CHP rolled their system out ahead of us and, fortunately for us, we got to learn some of the good, the bad and the ugly from what they did, which was mostly good. But there were some issues that had come up [and] because of their experience it became a little bit smoother for us."
Robert Schmidt, chief of the state's Office of Technology Services, also discussed his insights from leading large projects as a panelist and said his experiences highlight the need for clear and structured communication at all levels — especially the ground-level expert.
“That’s critical. They need to feel free to talk informally with each other, as well as formally,” he said. “Typically, what I find works best is a formal governance structure with interagency agreements, but then at the same time, the informal communication that occurs between peers in different organizations.”
This article was originally published on Government Technology.