Bhagowalia in Hawaii: Challenges Amid The Beauty

Sonny Bhagowalia

Sonny Bhagowalia

Imagine moving from a high-pressure, high-visibility federal job in the pressure cooker of Washington – to Hawaii. No more need to wear a suit and tie on humid, 99-degree Capital summer days. Less bureaucracy, less regulation for procurement, faster new technology deployment. A dream job, no?

Hawaii state government has a more casual dress code. But otherwise, Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia has experienced a real eye-opener in becoming Hawaii’s first CIO.

“Hawaii is certainly a cooler location with great spirit and traditions. But it’s also a great challenge,” he said. “Federal service is much easier in terms of more people, funding, technology and mature processes.”

Bhagowalia was a familiar and long time participant in the federal IT scene. Most recently he was Deputy Associate Administrator in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at GSA. He was also CIO at the Department of the Interior and a technology executive at the FBI. Before that he spent 14 years at Boeing.

Recruited by Governor Neil Abercrombie – who spent 20 years as a congressman from Hawaii and a member of the Natural Resources Committee – Bhagowalia said he was surprised by what he found. He’s been in Hawaii about two months.

On the technology side: “We’re one or two decades behind in technology. It’s worse than I expected.” He said many servers are five to seven years old.

On the managerial side, Bhagowalia has found that procurement and capital planning at the state level is “different, but not easier,” than federal. He’s disappointed that federal supply contracts are unavailable in most states, including Hawaii, by those states’ own regulations.

Hawaii operates on a biennium, or two-year, budget. That means planning takes place three years out, even longer than at the federal level. Plus, Bhagowalia said, “there is no Office of Management and Budget and more direct work with the legislature. It’s more challenging yet on a smaller scale. Much more coordination is required.”

The state’s 18 departments each have an IT leader, with a few designated as CIOs. An Information and Communications Service Division operates outside of the newly-created state CIO’s office.

Bhagowalia said Abercrombie’s wish for IT is to help make the state more efficient and increase the level of online services deployed to the public. Like many states, Hawaii faces both short term and long term fiscal problems that Abercrombie has called an “undeniable storm.”

Bhagowalia is going about transforming IT step by step. First on the agenda is getting the enterprise architecture to align with the state’s business needs. By the end of this month, he plans to report on the as-is state of the architecture with suggestions for the to-be.

“I’m not Moses,” he quipped, “but we will have top ten ideas to move on.”

He’s not looking to totally centralize Hawaii’s IT. “My thought is a collaborative government. Fragmentation is a big problem here.” Bhagowalia plans to establish a statewide strategic plan, establish more harmonized processes for acquisition and use collaboration to cut redundancy among departments.

He is simultaneously developing a funding schedule and plan for IT modernization. The two are intertwined. Dubbed the “transformation timeline,” the strategy has two basic steps. Between now and June 2013 (the end of the state’s 2012 fiscal year), Bhagowalia and his team will assess the current IT situation, develop a unifying view of state online services and required infrastructure, and convince the legislature to go along with funding it. That all takes place between now and June of 2013.

Implementation would then begin. Future steps include:

  • Modernizing and consolidating the IT infrastructure.
  • Bringing some semblance of centrality to purchasing to better leverage the state’s dollars.
  • Consolidating IT under the CIO, while standardizing applications for state employees.

Bhagowalia said Hawaii has some online services. For example, Honolulu has a site offering mobile apps. But overall, he said, the level of e-government lags that of the federal government. “We are clearly going to open, web-based government,” he added.

Right now, Bhagowalia has only two employees on his staff. Five more are coming, as is the Information and Communications Services Division.

On the positive side, Bhagowalia noted “a tremendous amount of positive energy and strong support from the governor.”

And, he no longer has to wear a suit to work. Donning a suit, he said, lasted about two days, given up for Hawaiian shirts like practically everyone else. He checks in regularly with D.C. colleagues, and does a lot of flying because his wife is still in the Washington area where his children are in private school.

Like so many before him, Bhagowalia is amazed at the landscape of Hawaii. “There is incredible beauty everywhere. The serenity is good for the soul.”

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About the author

Tom Temin has written 486 posts for Fedinsider.com

Thomas R. Temin - Editor in chief of FedInsider and brings 30 years of publishing experience in media and information technology. Tom is also co-host of The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris, a weekday morning news and talk program on WFED AM 1500 in Washington D.C.

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