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Partner Today, Profit Tomorrow

A riot of regulatory requirements. A patchwork of puzzling procurement practices. A cacophony of carping critics. And a plethora of pleasing profits.

That's our four-cornered take on the booming market for infotech that is emerging from the nation's 50 states, numerous cities and myriad counties.

To the untrained eye, Washington's federal infotech market may seem a poor training ground for the state and local arena, estimated to be worth $34.5 billion to $46 billion annually, and growing at a rate anywhere from 5.5 percent to 10 percent per year.

But local sales representatives and managers have long practiced the difficult task of selling infotech to the many federal agencies and to every nook and cranny of their proliferating divisions, offices and branches.

State and procurement officials also will likely follow the feds' footprints as they explore the benefits and risks of outsourcing, client/server solutions, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, task orders and electronic contracting.

Incumbent federal contractors will be all too ready to guide these state and local officials to their own products and contracts. So there is good reason to pursue multistate policies that may simplify decisions and reduce risks for both sides.

The potential for cooperation is obvious. All states and localities must face the year 2000 software conversion problem and could well draw on the feds' technical experience.

What's more, all states will need to swap data and benefits with Washington, and often with each other - ensuring plenty of payback if some alliance develops a widely accepted set of technical standards.

All states must grapple with complex and risky issues such as citizens' privacy, consumer protections, insurance liability and professional licensing - all of which are being addressed by a new federal-state task force being formed by the White House and the National Governors Association.

Because states and localities will experiment with various technical and policy fixes to welfare, unemployment, and education reform, there should be a standard way for every government official to compare the success or failure of each experiment.

All infotech vendors worry about being left behind by purely commercial rivals. Indeed, there is good reason for the vendors to push local officials to adopt commercial, open solutions while avoiding the scandals usually generated when a half-built proprietary system collapses under the klieg lights of the media.

Neither the local government nor industry has money to waste so both should push forward with multistate procurement competitions, such as the General Services Administration's schedules, to gain the economic benefits of large-scale contracts.

Would it be beyond the feds' ability to organize some form of loose-knit organization to share technological, regulatory and policy lessons among the states and localities? It would build on the existing associations established by government officials and by industry executives, as well as on the information-sharing capability of the World Wide Web.

To ensure action, industry should step up to the plate. A relevant example here is the year 2000 campaign launched by the Information Technology Association of America, which is trying to spur federal, state and local action.

Naturally, industry stands to gain from its year 2000 efforts, and it could gain greatly from any organization that can help avert costly mistakes and help replicate promising successes.

Whoever takes up the task can name the organization. If it were up to the White House, it would be "The Task Force on Building the Information Bridge to the 21st Century." Any other takers?

©1997, Washington Technology. All rights reserved.

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