Gov. Ridge Reaches for High-Tech Heartland


Gov. Ridge Reaches for High-Tech Heartland

By Dennis McCafferty
Staff Writer

"Ridge seems to be in the right place at the right time because he's reinventing Pennsylvania and turning it into a powerhouse for technology."
-Pat Schaal, AT&T

HARRISBURG, Pa. - With reports spread out on a mahogany conference table, Gov. Tom Ridge's information technology team outlined innovations that could transform the state into what Ridge called a "high-performance Heartland.''

On their plate were bold plans to outsource Pennsylvania's data centers; forge a public-private partnership for equipping schools with computers and networking gear; and establish a network to link the state's police, prison, court and probation databases.

At a meeting earlier this month, state officials discussed these and other ongoing initiatives in information technology programs, which currently receive about $400 million in annual spending.

Since assuming the Keystone State's top job in January 1995, Ridge has taken substantial steps to improve Pennsylvania's information infrastructure.

With state officials across the country finding more freedom to launch groundbreaking initiatives than their federal counterparts, states like Pennsylvania are trying to get out in front in the technology game. These states - which also include New Jersey, Utah and Nebraska - have shaken up the business-as-usual mindset when it comes to information technology projects. (See related stories showcasing state technology initiatives).

In Pennsylvania, for instance, all 40 state agencies will be connected to the state's Metropolitan Area Network by the end of the summer, compared to only five agencies when Ridge took office.

The network taps into high-speed fiber optic lines to allow rapid exchange of data among agencies, saving Pennsylvania more than $1.3 million in reduced paperwork since the network was launched in July 1993. Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic Corp. owns and operates the network, which commands an annual budget of about $1 million.

A much bigger project is the planned outsourcing of Pennsylvania's data centers, which is expected to result in $127 million in savings over five years by eliminating up to 500 jobs. The state is now looking for vendors - at least one prime contractor - to take over its IBM and Unisys platforms.

A request for proposals will be issued no sooner than October. There is no estimate of the contract's value, but the annual operating budget for the data centers is about $82 million. The savings will be pumped into personal computers, local area networks and other information technology investments, as well as retraining for displaced state workers.

"We really need to modernize state government and prepare for the 21st century,'' said state Chief Information Officer Larry A. Olson.

Ridge agreed, but noted that all the fancy Internet, intranets, two-way videos and high-speed wires don't mean a thing if they can't fit into the larger picture: One of delivering better services to citizens.

"There's a culture change that has to happen,'' Ridge said. "In order for us to advance ourselves technologically, we have to convince people that it fits a broader package. ... The state or states that most aggressively use the potential of information technology to improve delivery of services will be the states that lead the pack in economic development and education.''

Pennsylvania photo

Larry Olson, Pennsylvania's chief information officer

Experts tracking state information technology initiatives say Pennsylvania is far ahead of the pack with respect to innovation and execution. Of particular note is the state's early awareness of the year 2000 computer crisis and its active approach in correcting date codes. Olson launched the state's year 2000 correction plan in August 1996. Because of the state's progress in addressing this problem, Olson is in hot demand nationwide to speak about the year 2000 issue, said Mark Evans, an executive director at the Sacramento, Calif.-based Intergovernmental Technology Conference.

"They're clearly among the top in the nation, if not the top,'' Evans said. "Not only are they technology leaders now. But the rate at which they've grown is phenomenal.''

In a survey released this year by the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Information Resource Executives, Pennsylvania was one of 23 states that had already begun implementing and testing its date-code corrections. It was one of only 10 states reporting that it posts year 2000 information on its World Wide Web site.

By June, Pennsylvania converted more than 5,500 software programs to year 2000 compliance - 3,140 more than originally sought at that point on the calendar - by working internally and with about two dozen approved contractors, including Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. and Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys Corp.

Pennsylvania photo

Charles Gerhards, director of Pennsylvania's central management information center

"We're way ahead of the federal government,'' said Charles Gerhards, director of the state's central management information center. The Ridge administration "has given strong support. We're dealing with it as an enterprise, not as 40 different agencies. We've set the strategy. We've told the agencies when they needed to get it done, and we provide the oversight.''

John Kost, senior vice president of McLean, Va.-based Federal Sources Inc., ranks Pennsylvania in the top three among states for innovation and information technology approach. (The others are Connecticut, with its proposal to outsource all information technology services, and another state which Kost declined to name.) Pennsylvania captured Kost's attention in spring 1995, when Kost was CIO for the state of Michigan and the Ridge administration sought his advice.

"I've been very impressed with them,'' Kost said. "They've spoken very boldly about outsourcing the data centers. They've been very aggressive with the learning initiatives. They've been out in front with the year 2000. They recognized it as a serious problem and they've invested the money to make the repairs.''

Pennsylvania officials can point to a number of current and future highlights among IT projects. For example, the $11 million Justice Network project (a.k.a. JNET) will link the state's police, prison, court and probation databases. A request for proposals is expected to be issued by the end of the year for 28 pre-qualified vendors to implement the network structure for the various agencies.

Then there's Link to Learn, a three-year, state-supported $127 million project that will provide grants for computers, software, teacher training, Internet connections,
networks and distance-learning equipment in classrooms. Poorer schools will get the most money. The initiative relies heavily on community contributions, with the first year's 14 projects getting $4 million in state funding, but $18 million from communities and businesses.

As for the state's year 2000 approach, it hasn't resulted in big business yet for industry. Only about $7.4 million of the estimated $34.2 million correction cost is anticipated be contracted out, with agencies now encouraged to make fixes in-house, state officials say.

One of the key vendors on the state's year 2000 list, Unisys, has received less than $1 million in revenue so far from making year 2000 fixes at Pennsylvania state agencies. That's much less than anticipated since the state approved the company for awards in December 1996, said Mary Kurkjian, a vice president at Unisys Corp. overseeing state government year 2000-related business. Kurkjian attributed the lower sales figure to the state's reluctance to outsource most of the work.

The company is hoping that realistic assessments of the problem's scope will open up opportunity. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania officials said the emphasis on in-house corrections could change as the final deadlines approach.

Still, the state earns high marks for its planning and improved, centralized approach to information technology purchases, said Pat Schaal, the AT&T client business manager who oversees Pennsylvania government business. Basking Ridge, N.J.-based AT&T is a prime contractor with Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic Corp. in a $7 million phone service project that will provide voice and video communications for an internal state communications network, as well as 800- and 900-number information phone lines for taxpayers.

"Gov. Ridge has done a lot to fix Pennsylvania's lagging image,'' Schaal said. "Much of the state was perceived as being anti-business and very rural. ... Ridge seems to be in the right place at the right time because he's reinventing Pennsylvania and turning it into a powerhouse for technology.''

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