Utah Powers Up Its IT Infrastructure

Utah Powers Up Its IT Infrastructure

By John Makulowich
Contributing Writer

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt

Combine an aggressive governor who's technology-savvy, a citizenry dominated by the Mormon religion that values education highly and an upcoming winter sports event driving innovation and initiative, and you've got the seeds for understanding Utah's strong push to promote information technology statewide.

Its home page on the World Wide Web is a microcosm of that attitude. There, the curious citizen and interested user will find coverage ranging from minute details of the revamping of Interstate 15 into a smart highway, or Advanced Traffic Management System all the way to the full text of the state's model Digital Signature Law, a key part of its electronic commerce initiative.

According to Alan Carlsen, state information technology consultant and one of two individuals with that title working from Gov. Mike Leavitt's office, Utah's head of state is a forceful advocate of technology.

"The governor is fond of pointing companies in the direction of using technology instead of bricks and mortar," notes Carlsen.

That particular effort attracts a lot of attention from other state executives and recently won an award in the electronic commerce category from the National Association of State Information Resource Executives. Utah was the first state to provide so-called "legal standing" for the use of digital signature technology in a state-licensed business environment, passing legislation in 1995. It amounts to promoting and encouraging the establishment of licensed digital signature certification authorities and digital signature repositories.

Carlsen's title and responsibilities are even unusual among the states. His role is oversight and coordination, to generally approve and ensure that proposed agency programs work with one another.

"The general philosophy of the governor and the state is pro-technology," says Carlsen. "The approach is to view technology as an enabler. And our role is to serve as a quiet mentor for other states, that is, to lead by example."

One program that highlights the state's quiet mentor approach is seen in the so-called SmartStates initiative, created in 1995 by western state governors as a way to manage change to benefit government, business and citizens. The governors identified opportunities for coordinating western state procurement, for sharing the development costs of new network applications and for promoting open systems, standards and protocols. One of the key projects in the network applications area was the Western Governors' University, also known as the Virtual University. The SmartStates Information Technology Task Force is chaired by Utah's Lavarr Webb and is charged with identifying and coordinating the management of future SmartStates initiatives.

Asked why the state takes such an aggressive posture in using technology, Carlsen explains that there are two reasons: one is the scope of his job, which is to help make the state as competitive as possible in creating jobs and attracting business. The other reason is to profile the work Utah is doing to enable other states to learn from it.

One of the major challenges ahead, a happy circumstance in promoting technology, is to develop the infrastructure needed to support the 2002 Winter Olympics, slated for Salt Lake City but affecting cities from Ogden to Provo. Not only will revamping Interstate 15 be part of the infrastructure equation, with the ATMS component alone amounting to $65 million, but companies are already planning to showcase their products and services, including US West.

Part of the speed with which Utah has moved into the electronic age is accounted for by its large Mormon population, which strongly encourages learning, according to Carlsen. He quotes data that shows Utah has a higher than national average penetration of PCs in the home, yet a lower than average incidence of cable television. Further, educated populations usually demand more government services delivered electronically, which matches the public sector effort to distribute information more efficiently and presumably at lower cost.

The Utah level of effort is impressive by any standard. The details available on the construction of Interstate 15 are overwhelmingly minute, including a home page devoted to the project with its own frequently asked questions, or FAQ, community task force information, press releases, fact sheet, design information and construction schedule. There's even a search engine and a place to leave comments.

Where is the state headed on the electronic information highway? Carlsen says he and his colleagues are looking seriously at seven or eight service delivery models. Among them are kiosks; integrated voice response, dial-up services, like bulletin board systems; smart cards; Internet-based electronic payments; electronic data interchange and value-added networks alongside the Internet.

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