While serving as a member of the Florida House of Representatives, Florida Chief Information Officer Jamie Grant introduced legislation to create the Florida Digital Service, an organization he now leads.
Little did he know, Grant would meet crisis after crisis during his first six months on the job, from issues with the online voter registration and unemployment systems to a massive breach of Microsoft’s Exchange service. “I’m talking to you from the emergency operations center, which is both literally and metaphorically how my first six months have gone here,” he said.
While Grant is proud of the way these issues have been handled overall, he recognizes a need for continued improvement in the design and transparency of Florida’s technology enabled services. Leveraging nearly a decade of experience driving strategy for technology startups in the healthcare sector, the self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer” is keen on operating the Florida Digital Service much like the startups where most of his career has been spent.
During Synapse Summit 2021, Grant met with Florida High Tech Corridor Council CEO Paul Sohl for a review of his first few months on the job and his vision for where the agency is heading. Read more:
Tell me about your transition to CIO.
The Florida Legislature is a part-time job, so there’s been a big transition in my life. I used to be a part-time policymaker and full-time entrepreneur. Now, I’m a full-time executive serving in the administration. For the better part of the decade I spent in the House of Representatives, I really focused on how we use data to make Florida a data-driven enterprise and to deploy an enterprise approach for the first time. A lot of people probably don’t realize just how blank of a canvas it is. The Florida Digital Service represents the first-ever enterprise approach to tech in the state. We have actually killed four tech offices in the state of Florida, so we’re defying the rule of bureaucracy… we put policy into play to reform and give a mission to what Florida’s top tech office does and is response for, and perhaps as importantly, what it’s not responsible for. It’s definitely interesting to leave the private sector and to be in this space.
One of the things I’ve learned in my role with The Corridor over the last nine months is that there is a tremendous need for talent in the innovation and high tech space. How do you get the talent you need?
With a bit of freedom. One of the things that’s most empowering for myself and my team is that every other pathway has been tried. Safe has been tried. Traditional has been tried. Everything has been tried to establish technology leadership at the state level that makes a real difference for the consumers, constituents and stakeholders. So, first and foremost, handling it with bit of empowerment.
We are also going to avoid a culture where failure is punished. We’re going to fail forward and fast. All my favorite college coaches in hockey and football told me that if I delivered the blow, it hurt less… We’re leaning into churn. We’re not going to have a culture where you have to make a lifetime commitment or have to live in Tallahassee to come work for the Florida Digital Service… We’re going embrace a tour of service and we’re going to partner with private-sector leaders to facilitate the ingestion of talent to come in on a mission basis – maybe as mentors for six, nine or 12 months. The reality is I can’t pay leading cybersecurity talent to build a team to be the leader of cybersecurity in the state of Florida but I can perhaps call ReliaQuest and say, “Send us talent to serve as mentors for a period of time.” And, simultaneously, we work with trade schools and colleges and the university system.
I’m really proud that our first six interns took their first job in the private sector and secured an aggregate salary of $1.2 million. Some have gone out to Microsoft headquarters to lead automation… We’re going to embrace the fact that people will come to us for a season, make a big dent on behalf of the Florida Digital Service and then they’re going to go on to something else.
One of the things you highlight about the Florida Digital Service is the experience and the design of that experience. Can you elaborate?
When I got here in August 2020, I told this team, “We’re going to be customer obsessed.”
My job as top technology officer in the state is actually not about technology. It’s problem solving. Technology is just a tool that helps us scale the process we’ve designed. It’s the accelerant.
I’m a big believer that everything scales… We have to be very careful when we’re designing things to understand the power of the platform we have and the number of people we impact. We start at the ground level and ask, “What does it impact? Who does it impact? What are their needs? How have we solved for that?” If we do that, problem by problem, I think we can transform peoples’ expectations of the way government performs and the services we deliver.
What are your priorities in the next year? What should Florida’s digital world look like three to five years from now?
When it comes to what we have, what we call it, where we keep it, where it moves, the state doesn’t know. We have silos. As just one example, with the Microsoft Exchange issue we’re dealing with right now, I can’t tell the governor how many agencies actually have on-premise Exchange servers. I can tell you at least a certain number. So, I think the biggest thing is to answer those questions. People who work with or partner with the Florida Digital Service should be thinking through how we develop the landscape… if we can answer those questions, then I think we can show people really rapid deployment and really great private sector partnership…
A lot of what you’ll see us focused on is what the state is good at and the one thing the state offers in this ecosystem is data and the consumer facing aspect. We have to engage with our constituents, and they have to engage with us. With a customer obsession, rather than looking at a citizen in Florida as a hostage taxpayer who has to deal with us, we are looking at ourselves as if they have a choice. Would they choose to deal with us?
That’s where you’ll see us transform. It’s going to take some time and effort, and some buy-in, but for the first time in our state’s history, we have a governor who has prioritized it and a legislature that’s authorized it. Really, the best way I can put it is that the only way we fail is if I fail. Everything else is in place. I’m the first CIO in Florida that I think has an opportunity to succeed. I have the backing, so it’s a matter of whether I can build this team out to make sure we succeed.
How best can smaller companies engage with you?
That’s a great question and it’s a huge priority. I’m going to state the problem first: Most small companies don’t have the budget or the spend to have lobbyists, accountants and lawyers who are monitoring government programs. They don’t have relationships in the capital… If they get brought into something, it’s typically as a subcontractor for a big company that does have the lawyer, the lobbyist and the relationship to make sure procurements flow through them. When you look at those procurements, it’s usually just through a general contractor that is not actually developing things; they’re not actually the innovator or subject-matter expert, they’re just the broker.
It would be good for us at some point to do a crash course explaining what GSA and NASPO are as alternative contract vehicles. There are some ways that businesses can get on lists that go parallel but in a different process from traditional procurement methodologies.
You’re going to see us focus in the Digital Service where we drive the enterprise architecture to include how we buy. It has to include not just what we buy and what we build but how we buy and how we build, and to look at how we do more value-based and smaller, modular agile procurement.
As an objective, rather than one $200 million procurement to solve a problem, we get 200 $1 million procurements brought together to build a Lego-like solution…
As a rabid and unapologetic believer in market-based competition, I want more people to understand the problem we’re trying to solve; I want more businesses at the table to compete for our business.
It’s my job to be a good steward of the taxpayer dollar to get the best value, which is price against benefit. And the more people we can have at the table, the better that will get.
Any final thoughts?
Just like software development, this conversation is never done. It’s been bittersweet to move to Tallahassee. Tampa is my home. People have asked me how long I’m going to be here. I’m going to be here as long as the governor will have me and as long as it will take to make sure this is not another tech office that goes in the graveyard. We’re going to focus on value and we’re going to deliver the value. In order to do that, we’re going to need an ongoing conversation; we’re going to need our partners.
I would also add that “no” and “not yet” are very different answers, and that sometimes is my challenge. There is just so much to work on… Please know that if we’re not getting to it right away, it’s not a “no.” We’re dealing with a blank canvas and really, truthfully have launched a startup within government, which presents its own challenges. We can’t get to everything as fast as I like, but I promise we’ll try and get to it as quickly as we can.