Fortuño talks about his failure in establishing the CIO structure by law

Two different governors in 2009 and 2013 proposed the creation of a central technology structure to help digitize government services, yet both failed in the endeavor.  In an interview with former Governor Luis Fortuño, we discussed the position of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) in the Government, the challenge of establishing the position and structure recommended by law and its importance to execute effective digital transformation in government.

dear fiscal board luis fortuno

GG: Since 2008 we’ve been talking about the position of the Chief Information Officer and the importance of an organizational framework backed by appropriate legislation. Today, Puerto Rico is essentially in the same place as in 2009 when you named Juan Eugenio Rodríguez (JE) as the first CIO. The story from 2009 seems to be repeating itself in that despite having a capable person serving as CIO, he has neither the budget, the structure nor the authority in law to carry out the initiatives that would be expected of the CIO. Would you say that the fact a legislative bill establishing the framework for the Office of the COP was not passed during your tenure as one of the biggest failures of your administration?

LF: Yes. I came into my administration with a strategy of providing better services at lower costs. We wanted to make public services more accessible so that citizens would be able to transact pretty much anything from their home or place of work using a computer, and not be forced to visit a government agency.  I thought that for this to be effective, the execution had to be designated under one person. Unfortunately, the legislative project to create the Office of the  CIO fell into legislative battles and therefore, we had to create the office through an Executive Order.

It was very difficult to achieve significant progress in that there were many instances of reluctance by government agencies to participate in government-wide initiatives.  It was the CIO’s responsibility to prepare an initiative, present it at our Cabinet meetings and from there, I would provide the support necessary to carry it out.

GG: Where did the resistance to pass the Office of the CIO bill in the legislature come from?  Was it in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, by lobbying from private companies or from where did it arise?

LF: To my knowledge, there were no private companies involved in efforts to prevent the law from passing. However, there was a degree of resistance from what I call “the permanent government”, concentrated in some specific agencies that have traditionally been assigned to perform the functions that were to be assigned to the Office of the CIO.

At the legislative level, the bill became hostage to other battles that had nothing to do with the Office of CIO, but since they knew that this was important to me, they took the bill hostage even if the other battles had nothing to do with the Office of CIO.

GG: Governor Ricardo Rosselló created the Puerto Rico Innovation Technology Service (PRITS) through an Executive Order. However, there is no talk of a legislative bill to structure PRITS. There is a project in the House of Representatives sponsored by Rep. Navarro (PC 749), but there hasn’t been any progress. Why do you think this is?

LF: I don’t know anything about this bill, or any other for that matter. I have not stepped back into the Capitol since I was there on January 2 when Gov. Rosselló was sworn in

GG: If you were governor, would passing this bill into law be a priority?

LF: Definitely and with more reason, having been witness to the resistance to change that there is inside the government. Effective digital governance requires the ability to invoke the rule of law in order to work.  Under the right conditions, it should move forward. I am not aware of why the bill has not moved, but what I know of the current governor is that he IS VERY ‘techie’ and understands the importance of technology.  I think he may be waiting for the right moment to push the bill through.

GG: Section 103 (d) under Title I in PROMESA allows for the detailing of Federal employees to the Fiscal Control and Oversight Board (FCOB).  Gov. Rosselló sent a letter to the chairman of the FCOB, José B. Carrión III, requesting that members of the US Digital Service be detailed to work in developing and supporting digital initiatives in the Government of Puerto Rico. How feasible do you think it is for the FCOB to build a digital team similar to the USDS to address particular challenges and that their execution serve as an example for the local government to follow?

LF: I would go further – since there is a FCOB (without necessarily being proud that is has been imposed on us) with legal authority delegated by the Congress, a great contribution would be that if it sets up a digital team to develop a particular initiative, the Office of the CIO and local agencies should then receive proper knowledge transfer and guidance on the adoption of best practices. The idea should be that whoever runs these new digital services in the Government of Puerto Rico are people who will provide continuity once the FCOB is no longer in the picture.

One of the problems we faced was not knowing how much cash we had on hand. It is difficult to believe that this can happen and we still have the same problem in the Government of Puerto Rico. I would have wanted to make proper investments under the right circumstances to address this weakness.  The FCOB could provide the island a great service by attracting talent with a specific agenda to address important problems such as determining the government’s’ cash position and establishing metrics to measure success. Again, it is important that the knowledge transfer and skills development for the people who will work on a permanent basis with the resulting systems be properly emphasized.

GG: If we were to fast-forward to the end of Gov. Rosselló’s administration and look back, what could we be looking at to validate major technological progress?

LF: I see it from a perspective as a user of public services who wants services that are more accessible at lower costs and that could lead to lower taxes, while providing for future economic development opportunities (government as a platform).

Second, I would love to see greater adoption and meaningful use of certified electronic health record technology. One of my frustrations is that I felt that we were not able to advance further on the subject of the electronic health records and Health Information Exchange – I would have loved to see it carried through to completion, because it simplifies the patient’s interaction with the health system and affords provider the opportunity to get a more complete clinical picture of the patient, which results in better health outcomes. In addition, having providers generate redundant data on patients and their health taxes the precious resources of the overall health system.

GG: What advice would you offer to advance legislation that allows the governor to sign PRITS into law?

LF: Be practical in what it can mean for the average citizen and make sure people understand it. Knowing the current Governor’s interest in this topic – he’s VERY “techie” – maybe he’s planning to have a package of measures to present.

GG: Luis, thank you for your time!

LF:  Thank you for your efforts, if you don’t push for this, nobody else will.

The next “Dear Fiscal Board” event is on September 6 at 6pm in Piloto 151 coworking space in Old San Juan featuring two international figures in “govtech” public service, sharing their experiences on what is working and engaging in open discussions with local leaders on how to move forward.