States Beef Up Government Infotech
There is a nationwide push for state and local governments to change their business practices
Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt won a second term, capturing 75 percent of the vote, on a campaign that was focused heavily on how technology could improve the state's government agencies.
Leavitt's goal of getting infotech to play a larger role in state and local governments is shared by many of his colleagues. Cecil Underwood was elected governor in West Virginia after stressing in his campaign the need to attract the high-tech industry to the state. North Carolinians re-elected Jim Hunt as governor, who has been credited with the growth of Research Triangle Park.
However, many state and local government agencies have struggled to make infotech fit effectively into the way they do business.
Some states, like Utah, have started to set out new plans for using infotech. Leavitt has made technology a part of every division and department in Utah. For example, his goal for 1997 is to get all of Utah's 735 schools connected to UtahLINK, a statewide data network that gives users access to the Internet.
Leavitt has also spent a lot of time educating the citizens of Utah as well as his staff on the practical uses of technology. For example, he organized a workshop earlier this year for all agency chiefs on data warehousing.
"I want state officials to be looking at new approaches to solving problems through the use of technology," said Leavitt.
The problem in many states is that their approach to infotech ignores evaluating the process by which agencies are actually delivering services to citizens, analysts said.
According to George Lindamood, an analyst for the Gartner Group of Stamford, Conn., every state has made the mistake of not evaluating processes.
For example, the early client/server projects weren't always necessary for certain agencies, he said. Many states converted to client/server from mainframe because it was stylish to do so even though it didn't make business sense to them, said Lindamood.
"Technology is an enabler to a business process solution," said Lindamood. "It's not the solution."
The Council of Governors Policy Advisers in Washington, which provides research, technical assistance and education, conducted a survey in January 1996 on the infotech plans of all state governments. The organization is made up of the top four policy advisers from each state.
One part of the survey asked state officials how they expected infotech to make their agency's activities more efficient. According to Dick Gross, executive director of CGPA, all respondents said they expected infotech to play a significant role and some even referred to infotech as a silver bullet.
"There is little variation on the idea that they need IT in the face of diminishing federal dollars, in order to provide effective service to the citizen," said Gross.
According to Gross, there is little coordination among the states for these efforts.
"The problem is that there is no one in control [of collaborating state efforts]." The federal government should take a leadership role, he said, but lack of money has become a barrier.
Analysts say all levels of government should be run like a business instead of a bureaucracy. There should be a focus on customer service and easing the process by which citizens obtain government services.
Agencies should empower employees and adopt tried and true principles from the business sector, said Lindamood.
"We need to focus on the hassle factor," said Lindamood. "The problem is that government has resisted change for so long."
Government officials often see many risk factors in adopting new technology. There is an increased vulnerability in terms of security when citizens' and government information is stored online, he said.
New technology also has a high degree of complexity and the training and maintenance support is often expensive.
Gov. Leavitt said the barriers he encounters in Utah are sociological, bureaucratic and stem from traditions that are hard for governments to break.
Technology is never the barrier, said Leavitt. He said that state and local governments should not be constrained by the federal government.
One option available to states is to turn to the private sector. Some states are already depending on systems integrators to chart their information technology strategies and implement the technology in their agencies.
"We are seeing movement, discussion and innovation in some states," said Brad Dawson, director of marketing for state and local government contracts at Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas. "But because state government changes affect so many people, it's difficult to make leaps into IT immediately."
Utah should be a prime example for other states, said Dawson.
Other innovative states are Massachusetts, which launched a motor vehicle registry on the World Wide Web in August. Also, Connecticut and Iowa have set out smart plans for how technology can play a role in state government, he said.
Many think the solution for states is to collaborate and share best practices. Lindamood said the answer for government is "to abandon industrial era thinking and start experimenting at the state and local level."
"Change will happen more quickly at the local level because you don't have to deal with a power structure," said Lindamood. "And there will be a bubble-up effect instead of a trickle-down effect."