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Travis County continues to delay IT restructure

Monday, August 13, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Travis County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes told county commissioners last week that taking the lowest probable offer to restructure its Information Technology Systems division and appoint new leadership was no longer an option.


“We could have gotten the interim CIO and the assessment” of the county’s current IT operational structure “for $200,000,” she said. “But that opportunity has passed us by.”


Grimes’ statement reflects the general chaotic tone associated with the department and its future in the wake of a lengthy debate about how and when to replace its former Chief Information Officer Joe Harlow. Harlow left Aug. 1 before county officials were able to come up with a succession plan.  


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt commented on the problem: “There is a great degree of dissension (here),” she said, before noting that “(w)e are behind the 8-ball in terms of our IT infrastructure.”


Eckhardt added, “We are undergoing some growing pains, and there is a lot of turf war, frankly, going on within our organization with regard to who controls what.”


Eckhardt and Commissioner Karen Huber serve as the court’s subcommittee on the matter. Huber told In Fact Daily via email that the situation wasn’t as simple as Grimes had portrayed it. The comment that it had taken too long and we had lost the original low bid contractor is not entirely correct,” Huber wrote. “It did take a long time, but the company was very small (I believe only 6 individuals) and their key employee who would have driven the project for Travis County took a job with another firm — sometime last year, I believe. This required a review and reassessment. Subsequently the committee embarked on a different path.”


As In Fact Daily reported last month, Harlow’s departure was long in coming. And it is clear that at least a majority of the court remains interested in restructuring the county’s Information Technology department. Still, commissioners have, as of yet, been unable to settle on a plan to bring in a consultant to layout changes, an interim department head to implement them, or a permanent new executive to run IT. (See In Fact Daily, July 24, 2012.)


After PIT, the contractor with the $200,000 proposal, pulled out of contention, Grimes worked out a potential agreement with an executive search firm called Lucas Group. Under the terms of that agreement, a Lucas employee would have served as both a restructuring consultant and as the interim CIO for not more than $375,000. Lucas would work for between six and nine months. In that scenario, county officials would restructure their IT department first under Lucas, then hire a new permanent executive to run it.


County Judge Sam Biscoe was not in favor of that arrangement. “My own view is that this is too much money for too short a time, and probably too much work for one person,” he said.


Huber told her colleagues that she would need two more weeks to consider the issue. Commissioners agreed to her request.


In her email, Huber – who supported the planning team behind the project — also offered a bit more insight into the process that Grimes has criticized. “The effort to get this project moving has been delayed for a number of reasons, the primary one being that committee members have had unusually heavy workloads with projects that compete for their time,” Huber wrote. County staff key to IT revamp are also working on the Civil and Family Courthouse project and the renovation of the county’s new building at 700 Lavaca Street, she said. Huber also noted that “there have been several key personnel changes” in departments associated with the pending IT overhaul. 


Grimes’ criticism would seem to point directly at the operational planning team – an assemblage of top county managers charged with making important decisions. That team takes the place of a single county administrator, akin to city manager-level executive, that other Texas urban counties have employed to lead day-to-day county operations. There have been rumblings on the Travis County dais – both for and against – about the need for the creation of such a position.

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