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Conversation With A Leader With Courage: Hardik Bhatt, Secretary Designate, Department of Innovatio

While few think of government as agile or quick moving, in less than two years, Hardik Bhatt has transformed Illinois from the bottom 4th of 50 states in digital outcomes to the top 3rd, launched the state’s first ERP system and data analytics practice, moved departments from mainframe to the cloud and announced mobile as the premier platform for the state.

Several years prior, Bhatt got his first taste of the public sector through his work with the City of Chicago, which is where we began our conversation.

VALUE DRIVERS: As a former CIO of the City of Chicago, you led a team of over 250 employees and consultants that would impact the technology for 34 city departments. How did that role come about?

Hardik Bhatt: I have enjoyed seamlessly going between the public and the private sector. I'm a private sector guy originally, but my family has a history of public service, and I have always been attracted to that.

When I was with Oracle, I started with commercial consulting on a major project for the Chicago Police Department, building the department’s technology and bringing it into police cars. This included putting video cameras on street corners, so that police could more strategically fight crime.

As a result of that, I was on the radar of then-Mayor Daley, who basically asked me if I would accept a position of the City’s CIO. My conversation with him was about seven and a half minutes. He said, "I want you. Why don't you come over?"

This is a testament to the US being truly the land of opportunity. Here I was, less than eight years into the country as a first generation immigrant, becoming the CIO of America’s third largest city. It only happens in this country.

Were you the first CIO the City ever had?

No, I was the third CIO since 1998. My tendency is always to do more than what the job description requires. I would always be dissatisfied if I had to be only the back office IT person. So my goal was to run technology for the City not as an IT shop, but as a catalyst.

Beyond everything we did at the City of Chicago to manage technology, I also found that this whole “smart cities” movement was starting. This was about 2006. Recognizing the opportunities for our citizens and government, we changed our focus to have more awareness, education and availability of broadband across the City of Chicago. This was crucial to enable a smart city. We creatively partnered with MacArthur Foundation and Chicago Community Trust as well as other private sector partners to improve broadband penetration and education. We founded a new non-profit, Smart Chicago Collaborative, that still is in existence today. In addition, we received $25 million from various grants to put towards broadband and technology usage in the community.

Did you find there's always a kind of tension between IT and whether or not it’s viewed as an investment, a strategic initiative or an expense?

There's always that tension, but the key is to convey the value that technology brings. It's not about investing in servers or computers or anything like that. It's about investing in the business and improving customer service.

As I traveled the globe working with leaders of cities and countries, it was always the same: focus on business and the customer. Talk in terms of business value, and make sure to deliver on it.

For example, as CIO for the city, we revamped the City of Chicago’s website and built a new website for Chicago tourists called For both of them, it wasn’t about new servers or technology but rather, “How do we make our website so that we can provide services much easier to our citizens?” We completely changed that. The mayor's press office and marketing office were the business owners, leading the content creation and website design. We had the technology and execution discipline to make it happen, but they were the owners.

Would you say that you've been highly successful defining your own role from an ability to define value and what the value proposition is?

I think coming from you it sounds less boastful, which is good! But yes, that’s true. If you want to be successful, you need to make sure that you are defining your role as a value-add to the organization.

I always think about everything that I do through two lenses:

  1. What am I learning?

  2. What am I contributing to the organization, to society and everything else?

That's what helps me ensure that I’m continuously learning something new and contributing those new things I’m learning back to the organization. Because, if not, what's the value for me and what’s the value from me to the organization? They have to go hand in hand. If either of those things is not happening, I’m in the wrong position, wrong place or wrong role.

That sounds familiar. In our book Being A Leader With Courage, we find that one of the hallmarks of a leader with courage is they have a lifelong passion for curiosity and being a lifelong learner. If those are missing, the likelihood of getting to a higher level is far less.

Absolutely. I felt that way a year and a half ago, when I got a call from the Governor’s office. Illinois had just elected Bruce Rauner, a venture capitalist, as Governor. Here’s someone who was making a million dollars a week or more who stepped away from that to run for public office. That was a courageous move. I was very curious about this. What drives a person like that? Why would you leave your comfort zone and get in the public arena?

So when I got that call, I realized that if the Governor can do it, I can, too. Here was my chance to bring my private and public sector experience to serve in an impactful and important way. I knew IT in Illinois was broken and that the State as a whole needed oxygen and fresh thinking.

When I came in, within the first 30 days I discovered the problems were much more deeply rooted than expected. I had my work cut out for me. As you know, leadership takes courage and, I would add, optimism and persistence. The gauntlet was thrown down, and I haven’t looked back.

In the continuation of our conversation, Hardik Bhatt explains the initial challenges he faced in becoming the State’s top IT leader as well as his goals for the State of Illinois’ digital transformation.

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