From Open Curriculum to Open Government: New State CIO Hopes to Make Bureaucracy Easier to Navigate

Sometime this November, MIT will put its 1800th course on line, completing the implementation phase of its OpenCourseWare initiative and essentially making the school’s entire curriculum available worldwide. But the woman who orchestrated this trailblazing effort won’t be there to see the milestone event. She’ll be across the river on Beacon Hill as Massachusetts’s new chief information officer, taking on an even bigger task: opening the government bureaucracy to its constituents and making it easier to navigate whether you’re seeking medical benefits, licensing your boat trailer, or applying for social services.

On July 20, Secretary of Administration and Finance Leslie Kirwan announced the state had hired OpenCourseWare executive director Anne Margulies as the new state CIO and assistant secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance. We reached Margulies in her MIT office, where she is working until assuming her new role after Labor Day.

Margulies arrived at MIT in May 2002 from Washington, DC, where she worked as chief operations officer for a government-relations and public-affairs-consulting firm. Previously, in addition to other industry work, she had spent a dozen years at Harvard in a variety of information-technology positions, including serving as assistant provost and executive director for the university’s Information Systems department.

At MIT, Margulies took on the daunting task of helping the university implement OCW, as OpenCourseWare is typically called. She’s almost awed by the response the initiative has gotten at an often-insular private university. “Eighteen hundred will represent the entire MIT curriculum,” she says. “The most impressive statistic…is we have 95 percent participation by the MIT faculty—and it’s voluntary.”

Margulies says she didn’t go looking for her new job, “but I feel like it’s sort of a call to public service that I had to take seriously.” She will be the state’s fourth CIO in two years. But she feels she has something her predecessors didn’t: the extra clout of her assistant secretary of Administration and Finance title. “It’s more than what the CIO position has been in the past,” she says. “I think I will have a much broader view across all the agencies.” Her goal is use that vantage point to fashion an IT infrastructure that helps break down “some of the silos between agencies so that the citizens have much easier access to the services.” One measure of success, she says, will be people “not having to fill out multiple applications for slightly different services.”

That’s definitely a laudable idea, but it’s early days and Margulies admits to not knowing exactly how to go about meeting such goals. And she is wary about drawing too many comparisons between her OpenCourseWare role and her new job. Still, she says, her background in academia should help because both universities and governments are very decentralized. “I think that is what sets government and higher education apart from the corporate world, so it won’t be completely foreign to me,” she says.

OCW has been a stupendous success, forming an important element of what former president Charles M. Vest has called the “meta-university.” Currently, there are some 1,700 courses online. The last holdouts, Margulies says, are typically faculty whose courses are so cutting edge they don’t lend themselves to web publishing—or who are so immersed in research that they can’t afford the time to make it happen. Up to 1.5 million people from around the world visit the site each month—and many other universities are now developing similar programs. A consortium devoted to open curricula has some 150 members, of whom 60 have already launched, Margulies says.

“OCW was this simple, crazy idea here at MIT, announced in 2001,” she says. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s now a movement.” Making government bureaucracies more open, transparent, and manageable sounds less simple—and crazier—but it will be interesting to see what Margulies can pull off come September.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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