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Techwire One-on-One: DOR CIO on Digital Transformation, 2021 Priorities

Jon Kirkham, chief information officer at the California Department of Rehabilitation, shares his definition of digital transformation and discusses the ongoing Vocational Rehabilitation Connections Project as well as priorities for 2021.

As part of Techwire’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.

Jon Kirkham is the longtime chief information officer at the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR), a position he has held since May 2014. Among his endeavors as CIO, he has spearheaded the modernization of DOR’s tech environment and the improvement of IT’s ability to deliver program outcomes. He and the staff at DOR serve as California’s go-to resource on accessibility, advising Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, state agencies and departments on compliance with 2017’s Assembly Bill 434, which required state websites to maintain full accessibility compliance, and state directors and CIOs to self-certify that their sites comply. Kirkham was previously CIO at the California Office of Traffic Safety. He also served as the California Department of Technology’s (CDT) expert for the 2016 SIMM 25 California IT Accessibility Resource Guide; worked to establish interagency agreements enabling DOR to consult with departments on accessibility; and served as Executive Sponsor for ITLA 24, Access IT California.

In February, Kirkham was one of two state chief IT officers to receive CIO of the Year honors at the 2020 Public Sector CIO Academy Awards in Sacramento. The awards are presented by e.Republic, parent company of Techwire and Government Technology magazine, in recognition of the IT leaders’ roles in tech procurement and governance. In June, the CIO joined California Department of Human Resources CIO Chad Crowe in delivering a Techwire Virtual Industry Briefing.

Techwire: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role; and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Kirkham: As CIO at DOR, my role can be broken down into two sub-roles: executive team member and head of technology. In my executive role, I am an integral part of the executive leadership team, collaborating with my colleagues to develop programmatic, administrative, and financial vision and strategy in support of the department’s mission. In my technology role, I lead a talented team that is an operational strategic partner for our programs, and I have overall responsibility for IT service delivery, setting and communicating the department’s technology vision, prioritizing digital security and privacy for DOR consumers and employees, and ensuring alignment of IT activities with departmental needs.

In my experience, CIO responsibilities have evolved from being focused on services and reliability to actively partnering on delivering value to our programs. It has required pivoting from “doing IT” and “having a seat at the table” to really engaging with business and programs and collaborating to achieve the best possible outcomes. As CIO, I need to understand the programs and lines of business my team is supporting, as well as overall enterprise finances, strategy and goals. I also need to be able to shift our culture and lead and mentor teams and individuals through this transformation. It takes patience, persistence and people skills.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Kirkham: As a member of the executive team and operational strategic partner to our programs, I am involved in all department strategic planning activities. I lead the IT division strategic planning efforts and bring that perspective to the department conversation, along with a higher-level technology lens to help keep us aligned with California Health and Human Services Agency and CDT strategies.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Kirkham: We are continuing to work on our Vocational Rehabilitation Connections Project, which provides accessible, secure electronic data exchange and workflows with both the Californians we serve and vendors we partner with to provide services. In addition, with the impact of COVID, we are re-prioritizing efforts for 2021 and anticipate focusing on consumer electronic payments, workload efficiency efforts leveraging AI, and flexible, multifunction platforms that support electronic workflow.

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

Kirkham: For me, digital transformation is about leveraging technology to improve the experience of the customer, whether that customer is internal or external to the department. The transformation may be about efficiency and reducing cost, it may be about responsiveness — it could be about better meeting the customer where they are, but it consists of a fundamental operational or technological shift. At DOR, you can tell from our major 2021 initiatives that we are currently engaged in or planning a number of digital transformation efforts. With the way I define it and the pace of technological change, I don't think so much in terms of being “finished,” but in terms of establishing new baselines from which to evaluate how well we are operating and how well we are meeting customer needs.

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

Kirkham: IT Budget: $8.9 million. IT Staff: 70. DOR Budget (operations): $281 million.

Techwire: 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?

Kirkham: My preference is email. Like other CIOs, I receive dozens of emails each week from vendors and can’t connect with everyone; however, where the product or services align with our needs, my team will reach out to you. I also like connecting with vendors at events such as the California Public Sector CIO Academy and the California Digital Government Summit. In terms of how vendors might best educate themselves before meeting with me, it is always helpful if they know who we are and what we do, and the DOR website is a great source of information.

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

Kirkham: I am extremely proud of the work the DOR IT team has done in support of the state’s efforts around website accessibility. With passion, dedication, and flexibility, they have provided support to dozens of departments in an area that will positively impact millions of Californians with disabilities. I am also really proud of the work my team has done in the last few years developing a strong infrastructure and service foundation upon which we can build value for our programs. Part of this has been a cultural shift that has us coming to the table as partners with a “yes, and” approach.

Techwire: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Kirkham: This is less about procurement and more about what I’d like to see from vendors: Products that are designed from the ground up to be accessible for people with disabilities and products that create accessible content by default. Technology is opening new doors every day — let’s make it work for all of us.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the govtech/SLED sector?

Kirkham: Techwire, Government Technology magazine, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

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

Kirkham: Hobbies include cycling, hiking with our dogs, home improvement projects (my wife made me include that!), photography, and travel — I’m happiest when I can combine my camera, a hike/walk, and a location in the world I’ve never been before.

My reading ranges from easy-to-read thrillers by authors like Lee Child and David Baldacci to best-selling fiction from a variety of authors (The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens) to historical/biographical stories (Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and The Wright Brothers by David McCullough) to science fiction (The Martian and Artemis by Andy Weir and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline).

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