The “State” of IT in Minnesota

Our monthly MHTA meet up took a trip to the MN State Capitol earlier this week, and in addition to an inside look at the Capitol (plus hilariously crochety tour guide from the Minnesota Historical Society), we were also treated to a CIO panel, headed up by State of MN CIO Carolyn Parnell (MN recently consolidated IT in the past few years, no small feat, under Parnell’s leadership).

As a MnSCu employee of a few years now, I vaguely remembered hearing Parnell speak previously while in her role with MnSCU, but was immediately thinking of how to frame a question that’s been brewing in my mind for a while. There’s been a flow of articles lately around the reform needed around public service, coming from publications like The Washington Post,, and The Atlantic. I even wrote my  own under Benovate’s masthead, focusing on what I see as a key component in attracting and retaining talent based on my own experience in public service: fostering the entrepreneurial spirit, otherwise known as ‘intrapreneurship.’

Basically, one of the pieces pointed out that even though millennials are highly engaged with current events and have the drive to effect change, they’re much more likely to create a start-up than get a job within a government agency because they’re disillusioned by government, the outmoded structure that values people based on how long they spend sitting in a chair vs. what they produce, and so on.  Intrapreneurship is tapping into that creative side of employees, and fostering the energy and ideas into something that benefits both employee and organization. There are ties to the just culture that I love so much, that employees are valued as people and not just bots in chairs in front of desks, and recognizes individuality and innovation.

Back to MHTA and the CIO panel. I actually didn’t get a chance to ask my question, but someone else took the words out of my mouth (albeit framed a bit differently, but Parnell turned it around back to answer mine). The question came from a MHTA-mate from Code 42, who in our first session mentioned that the perception by those on the coasts is that Minnesota is behind the times when it comes to technology. He asked how does the state plan to compete with private sector employment, or plan to draw and retain talent in spite of such a strong perception that the software is outdated, ideas antiquated, etc (see how he took the words out of my mouth?)

Well, turns out that it’s a perception that’s getting flipped on its head. Parnell even kicked off her answer by stating that it’s her favorite question. The panel agreed that there are some legacy systems in serious need of updating, which isn’t too different from many organizations. But they do have state-of-art equipment because of the complexity and seriousness of their need. If some systems go down for 24 hours–or even just 24 minutes–it can cause an avalanche of issues across the entire state.

There was a little discussion around the ‘silver tsunami’ (refers to the rise in the median age of the United States workforce; it’s projected that by the year 2020, about 25% of the U.S. workforce will be composed of workers 55 and over), and other initiatives that are being undertaken by the state. My favorite is an innovation program, evidenced by the recent Capitol Code event that I’m so sad to have missed.  I’m seriously excited by the fact that MN.IT (pronounced like ‘minute’) is taking a proactive approach to the issues, and that Parnell & co. are on par with private sector (which I don’t think many people thought walking in…self included, and I *work* in public service IT).

In her closing remarks, Parnell mentioned that everyone should work in public service for at least on year, and then go back to their private sector jobs. Having worked in both, and continuing to stay in public sector, I can say it’s definitely less soul-sucking than the private sector.  However, I can personally attest that even though things are looking up in MN.IT, it’s not the case elsewhere, where budget cuts and other restrictions are constantly asking departments to do more with less, and people are feeling more like costs and expenses than valued employees.

***Edit: when I managed social media at Metropolitan State, I live tweeted her talk at the Big Data Symposium back in October 2012!

Big Data Symposium

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