Political impasse prompts emergency IT plan

When New Jersey's governor and legislature became deadlocked over the state's budget, a funding freeze forced its IT department into disaster mode

Many IT managers have developed contingency plans to deal with the high rates of staff absenteeism that might be caused by an emergency, such as a pandemic or weather-related disaster. But Adel Ebeid, chief technology officer for the State of New Jersey, is managing a man-made crisis: a state budget shutdown that has forced him to cut his staff by more than 90% and turn to contingency plans designed for service disruptions.

The shutdown, which began on July 1, has forced the state’s Office of Information Technology to cut its staff from 930 to just 80 employees. Those employees still on the job have been working to keep essential IT services operating, including the state’s datacentres and its network and internet services. Those at work also include a number of application developers.

“Unfortunately, at a time like this, IT really doesn’t shut down,” Ebeid says. “If anything, IT really steps up quite a bit. This has been an excellent lesson statewide on how IT actually proved to be sort of the umbilical cord for government operations.”

The crisis arose from a budget impasse between New Jersey lawmakers and State Governor Jon Corzine.

Ebeid says his team relied on contingency plans that envisioned a disruption in services, “and that’s pretty much what we are really facing.” It is not unlike planning for bird flu absenteeism.

Ebeid says his biggest concern has been keeping the state’s wide-area network running, as well as ensuring the continuity of email and internet services.

“That’s what’s kind of glued the whole state government and local government together — that’s something I watch on an hourly basis,” he says.

When operations return to normal, Ebeid says he’ll review the response for any lessons. “I think we can probably learn from this and hopefully document the decision-making process ... so that you try to bring some order to the chaos.”

Important steps include having a clear chain of command so employees aren’t making decisions on their own, he says. “There is a very clear and deliberate process from the top on what essential services you have to support, and the folks on the front line have to be very clear on what their next set of actions are,” he says. “There is very little room for error [or] ... or delay.”

Teri Takai, CIO of Michigan’s Department of IT, says any time a state has a crisis, “we always learn a lot about what constitutes critical IT services”. In her own experience, she referred to the 2003 blackout that cut electricity to some 50 million people from Michigan though to New England.

“They will definitely get some good feedback on what constitutes critical services,” she says.

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