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State Social Services Tech Leader: ‘I Am a Hands-On CIO ... ’

An image of Chad Crowe, CIO of the California Department of Social Services, next to a quote that reads: "We have been working on several large initiatives that are getting off the ground in 2023 that will require external support. The state of these efforts ranges from Project Approval Lifecycle planning to the implementation of various systems."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Chad Crowe is chief information officer at the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), a role he has had since July. He is a longtime state IT executive and was previously CIO for the California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) from April 2008-July 2022. There, he shepherded its Examination and Certification Online System (ECOS) project to completion. A $10 million, six-year initiative, ECOS is used by all departments, employees and potential employees to recruit, promote and find work with the state. In 2020, Crowe talked to Industry Insider about his work at CalHR; find that conversation here.

Crowe has an associate’s degree in mathematics from American River College and a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from California State University, Sacramento. He is a 2014 graduate of the Information Technology Leadership Academy (ITLA), a 17-week program for public-sector IT staffers and executives with a focus on critical leadership skills.

Industry Insider — California: As CIO at your organization, how do you describe your role? How have your role and responsibilities changed in recent years in terms of their intersection with IT and innovation?

Crowe: As many CIOs do, I wear many hats and take on several roles. Primarily, I am a leader, manager, mentor, motivator, business partner, and a strategist working toward CDSS’ digital transformation. I work closely with all my IT teams and department program areas. Since I have a very technical background and was a project manager for years, I would say that I am a hands-on CIO and fill in wherever I’m needed. Having worked in IT for so many years, I understand the pain, pitfalls, and what it takes to get things done at an operational level. Therefore, I can support my team in several different ways by giving direction, guidance, mentoring, or just being a cheerleader. The CIO role in the not-too-distant past was more about keeping the lights on, making sure that things were status quo, and that there were no interruptions of services. Now, CIOs are being heavily relied upon to move business operations forward with automation. “Driving digital transformation” is the phrase that best describes the CIO role today. CIOs and the IT shops are expected to streamline and automate the various business functions and are heavily relied upon to ensure the department can meet its goals and support its mission. To accomplish this kind of enterprise transformation, CIOs must have vision, foresight, an enterprise approach, strategic planning, executive support, and an amazing IT team. Luckily, we have all of this at CDSS.

IICA: Does your organization have a strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? How big a role do you personally play in writing that strategic plan?

Crowe: CDSS does not currently have a strategic plan published. We are currently updating our mission statement, values, and guiding principles. All CDSS executive staff are intimately involved with the creation of our mission, values and guiding principles. In addition, CDSS aligns with the California Health and Human Services Agency (CalHHS) Guiding Principles and Strategic Priorities.

IICA: What big initiatives or projects are coming up? What sorts of developing opportunities and RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Crowe: We have a lot going on this year. We have been working on several large initiatives that are getting off the ground in 2023 that will require external support. The state of these efforts ranges from Project Approval Lifecycle planning to the implementation of various systems. These range from back-end enterprise data solutions to large statewide systems, including the Facility Management System to track licensing of care facilities, a new Housing and Homelessness Reporting Solution, a new data solution for child-care and food programs referred to as California Supporting Providers and Reaching Kids (CalSPARK), and a Statewide Verification Hub to streamline the verification process for applicants of CalWORKs cash assistance and CalFresh food benefits. These are just a few of the larger projects where we anticipate opportunities for vendor partnership, not to mention several internal projects for continual business process improvements and other project support needs. We expect a very busy and extremely productive year in 2023.

IICA: In your opinion, what should local government be doing more of in technology?

Crowe: In my opinion, we all need to continue to focus on enterprise architecture that better serves all Californians. We need to focus on user experience and how the different lines of business across state agencies fit together in the bigger picture to meet our customers’ needs. Government agencies should step back and look big picture at how the whole puzzle fits together to make the user experience more streamlined and easier to follow. We must focus on being human-centered and data-driven. Our agency, CalHHS, is working extremely hard on this kind of vision across its departments, as well as the California Department of Technology and the Government Operations Agency’s Office of Digital Innovation, so I believe we are heading in the right direction.

IICA: How do you define “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Crowe: I see digital transformation as a continual effort to fundamentally improve how business operates by streamlining and automating their business processes. CDSS has a great mission, with a wide range of business functions. CDSS has an extremely varied set of roles and responsibilities that have a direct, tangible impact on the lives of Californians, such as CalFresh food benefits, CalWORKs cash assistance, Children and Family Services, support for immigrants and refugees, and In-Home Support Services, to name a few. As you can imagine, it can be difficult to create enterprise systems and reporting solutions across several different functions and data sets. It is quite complex, but I truly believe we have the right leadership in the department to meet this challenge and make some significant headway in our digital transformation journey. We have a vision for where we need to be but getting there takes time. Digital transformation is an ongoing, continuous effort. It is similar to our security posture: When is enough security enough? You can always make improvements to get better, but you can never reach 100 percent. Your security posture is never going to be finished, just as digital transformation will never be completed — it can always be improved upon.

IICA: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Crowe: We currently have 212 IT employees. We do have a few vacancies, so anyone looking for a position with a department that has a great mission, amazing culture, and a variety of modern technologies should check out our current job openings.

  • Estimated IT annual budget: $75 million managed directly by CDSS and does not include IT projects managed in partnership with the Office of Systems Integration.
  • Estimated IT annual operating budget: $35 million
  • CDSS overall budget: $44 billion
IICA: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Crowe: Through emails and various conferences, like the California Public Sector CIO Academy, is probably the best, but can be difficult. I get over 30 emails a day from vendors, so it is difficult to respond to everyone, but rest assured if there is interest, we will respond. But please, no phone calls! Email is always best, and we do our best to read each one. One piece of advice I got from my previous AIO, Andrew Armani, was to always make time to meet with vendors. They have innovative ideas, a finger on the pulse of what is going on and can help solve problems. As I look back upon my many years of state service working in IT, I can now say how great this advice was. Now, I set aside a couple hours per week to meet with our vendors.

IICA: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Crowe: Well, I have only been with CDSS for eight months, but I do have several small wins that I am proud of to date. First, I am most proud of filling out our already incredibly talented IT leadership team with additional proven and forward-thinking IT leaders. We have started several internal foundational improvement efforts at CDSS, including efforts to establish IT governance; several annual surveys to elicit feedback from our program partners and our IT team; a dedication to continual process improvement across the IT branches is underway; establishing a formal Enterprise Architecture team; and several other realignment efforts. The future is very bright for CDSS IT with the visionary leadership and the fact that we have an extremely competent and passionate IT team.

IICA: What has surprised you most this year in government technology?

Crowe: I don’t know if I can say I’m surprised by much, but I will say I’m very interested in the ways that government is starting to implement artificial intelligence. I’m particularly interested to see how we will leverage ChatGPT in government. I have seen several use cases for IT when writing code, writing database scripts, and taking mounds of free-form text and bucketing them into categories for easier consumption. It is very exciting to see how we can leverage these innovative technologies in the near future.

IICA: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Crowe: I read Industry Insider mainly, of course. I also read Government Technology,* GovTech Today,* Comstock,, and Reddit, amongst the many articles available online on various reputable sites. I also leverage Info-Tech Research Group and Gartner subscriptions to keep me up to date. I participate in vendor-sponsored roundtables, I talk with a lot of other CIOs, retired CIOs/AIOs, and as I mentioned earlier, I take time to talk with our vendors.

IICA: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Crowe: I stay pretty busy in my free time. I coach my kids in their youth sports. Basketball is my favorite, but I also coach soccer and baseball. I enjoy woodworking, making furniture, and other small projects. Thanks to YouTube, I do all of my own mechanic work on my vehicles, and I hobby on my ’78 Jeep CJ5. I have been weightlifting for over three years now. I set up a home gym in my garage right before the pandemic — great timing. I like to play video games with my three kids and I also love mountain biking, kayaking, and fishing to get me out and enjoy nature. When I read for enjoyment, I like to read fiction books. I really enjoy military thrillers.

*Government Technology magazine and GovTech Today are publications of e.Republic, which also produces Industry Insider — California.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.