State Network Leader Lags in Other Areas
North Carolina has received acclaim for its communications infrastructure, but other state projects are going unfunded
P> Distance learning and telemedicine are terms that conjure images of cutting-edge information technology. North Carolina is a state that has received widespread acclaim for its innovative projects in these areas. Yet there are other areas, such as criminal justice projects, that the state's General Assembly has not funded.
When it comes to money spent on information technology as a percentage of the overall state budget, North Carolina ranks near the bottom. According to figures collected by the National Association of State Information Resource Executives, North Carolina spends just 0.8 percent of its budget on infotech.
WT talked to G. Curtis Clark, the deputy state controller for information resource management, to find out more about North Carolina's triumphs and the accompanying challenges.
WT: North Carolina has a reputation of being a very innovative information technology user. Is that something that originates in the controller's office or the individual agencies?
CLARK: In the mid-'80s the state consolidated management of shared computing services and established a centralized, statewide telecommunications network. I'd say that's the foundation on which we built.
Today, having a well-integrated, properly structured communications network is critical. The state controller's office has created the North Carolina Integrated Information Network, which is basically a suite of networked communications services from dial-in access to fiber and ATM.
WT: Based on your experience, what advice would you give to states that are trying to consolidate now?
CLARK: Hang tough. There are well-documented stories of agencies going to all lengths to stay out from under the central umbrella. This was the case in North Carolina. And it took a real commitment on the part of the administration to focus on why it was important to consolidate our technology resources. You must make a case of why it's important from an economic, efficiency point of view, as well as for program delivery.
The challenge for the shared service is to become more responsive to different needs of agencies as they want to move into new areas, such as using the Internet.
WT: What are your current IT priorities?
CLARK: The first is a statewide technical architecture.
We also need statewide policy standards for security and local area network management and so on. Until we put those in place, we'll continue to get a lot of disconnects as new systems are built.
The second major priority is to make sure that any system has a direct link to business needs within an agency. In the past, our strategic planning has been disconnected from our strategic technology planning.
We have statutory authority to approve technology projects for any state department prior to their inclusion in the budget. We have issued guidelines on technology planning. That will help us determine across state government where we should invest.
In addition, we have statutory responsibility to recommend technology products to the General Assembly. We've never done that. But we think if we do, projects will be better thought out. The General Assembly is very skeptical of our ability to deliver projects.
WT: The federal government is moving to a decentralized approach. They're letting agencies set priorities. Do you feel you're bucking the trend or are other states doing this as well?
CLARK: I think we're following the same trend. There is a very delicate balance between establishing policy guidelines and standards and putting controls in place. If you don't have an architecture and statewide policies and procedures, then you tend to overcontrol on a case-by-case basis. If you put those structures in place, you can delegate more and more responsibility because you provided the guidance.
WT: What major IT purchases will the state make in the near future?
CLARK: We need to focus on how to build the communications network infrastructure. Of course, North Carolina's networks get a lot of national press, but we're talking about infrastructure at a more in-depth level. A major priority will be school technology. The General Assembly has approved a five-year plan for about $400 million to put technology into classrooms in 2,000 schools.
WT: What about other projects?
CLARK: There are major proposals sitting in front of the General Assembly for an integrated criminal justice information network and a new client-access network for the human resource agency that would provide for a high level of integration across that department for services. Both projects were presented to the 1995 General Assembly and left on the table unfunded.
WT: Do you use any innovative funding for projects?
CLARK: That's an area the information resource management commission has recently discussed.
They want to create a technology innovations fund. Agencies would be able to use those dollars when they identify a technology solution that would help them reduce their costs.
WT: How big is the current state IT budget?
CLARK: It's between $175 million and $200 million annually if you include all state agency budgets and consulting contracts or supplement staffs. These numbers exclude expenditures in universities and schools.
WT: Is any of your funding from the federal government?
CLARK: Yes, a lot of the funding for the Department of Human Resources are federal dollars that are helping cover both developing projects and current operations.
Everyone is waiting for the bomb to fall in terms of block grants.
My guess is there will be cuts. Departments will have to decide how to allocate dollars for technology without slighting program delivery. That's why there is a lot of pressure to keep costs down.
If you're going to have those funding cuts, you need to be smarter in building the infrastructure and using existing systems.
WT will be running interviews in upcoming issues with key infotech strategists in other states. We welcome your comments, tips and suggestions. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Sina Fusco Kniseley, our state and local reporter, at (703) 848-2800, ext. 154.