Garden State Finds a New Way to Do Business
By Richard McCaffery
Ask New Jersey officials what they like about their new environmental data management system, and they say a process that is business friendly and likely to eliminate stacks of permit appeals.
New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman looks over
the Web site that carried her state of the state speech
in January. The state government has made a commitment to
use technology to transform the way it conducts business.
"We heard enough from people to know it was a problem," said Adel Ebeid, chief information officer of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.
The Web-based system, which was designed by American Management Systems Inc., Fairfax, Va., connects all the divisions at the environmental protection department. This allows engineers from waste, water and hazardous materials to share up-to-date information about environmental permits, enforcement measures and company compliance.
Ask AMS executives what they like about the system, and they cite its use as a tool they can resell to federal, state and local governments throughout the United States.
"We really believe we have a model here," Gary Labovich, vice president of AMS' environmental group, told Washington Technology.
The systems integrator has turned its $16 million contract with New Jersey into two new deals: a three-year, $4.8 million contract with Louisiana, signed last April, and an 18-month contract worth close to $1 million, signed this month, with Mississippi.
"We're hoping to talk to many other states," Labovich said.
Both parties say the new data management system is an example of how technology can sharpen business practices. It is central to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's plan to make New Jersey the online state.
"The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection solution is an excellent example of technology's potential to transform the way government does business," Whitman said in a statement.
The spark for automating New Jersey's environmental permitting, enforcement and compliance systems flared in 1994. Frustration from industry officials, lawmakers and others over red tape at the state's Department of Environmental Protection led the agency to reorganize, Ebeid said.
In addition, the department was in the midst of implementing sweeping changes as a result of new requirements imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The department, at the time one of the state's largest agencies with 3,700 employees, was seen as inflexible and overbearing, Ebeid said.
"We [were viewed] as constantly beating up on the little guy and unable to manage the big guy," he said. "Our only hope was to look at technology as a possible savior."
Enter AMS in August 1995 with its Environmental Management Desktop program.
Rather than simply automating New Jersey's environmental agency, AMS sat down with state officials and industry representatives from 20 companies to streamline the process.
Nine months later, the public-private task force had pared the 65-page air quality permit application down to 12 computer screens.
Called the Air Information Management System, the service started running in April, and the department already has received 60 permit applications electronically.
Companies submit permit applications to operate equipment ranging from boilers to incinerators. Simply filing an application electronically cuts off 15 days from the evaluation process, Ebeid said.
By winter 1999, all of the department's divisions - water, air, solid waste and hazardous materials - will be online and integrated as part of one system.
Ebeid expects the system to cut in half the time it takes for companies to obtain all their permits, a process that now can take two years.
By the end of 2000, New Jersey aims to have consolidated the number of environmental permits its issues from as many as 11 down to as few as one.
"Our goal is simple," Ebeid said. "We want companies to stay in New Jersey, and we want new companies to come to New Jersey. We won't relax our laws because we can't do that, but we will make it easier for companies to go through the environmental process."
To understand how hard it was to navigate the permitting process for air quality standards, imagine a company that wants to build and operate a utility boiler, Ebeid said. There are more than 30,000 state and federal requirements that are part of New Jersey's air quality permitting process.
Not all of the requirement apply in every case, but figuring out which ones do is essential if a company wants to know which standards it will have to obey.
"It was impossible before," Ebeid said. Companies never knew if they could comply with the requirements until after the permit was issued, which led to stacks of permit appeals, he said.
Industry officials agreed there was too much guesswork in the process.
"You would go through a new person [every time], who would make a decision on their own about what should go into a permit," said Hank Van Handle, regulatory and engineering services manager at Tosco Refining Co.'s Bayway refinery. Tosco, an oil refinery in Linden, N.J., also has facilities in California, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Since the standards were so complicated, even the same pieces of equipment would often be issued widely different permits.
"Now there is a presumptive set of conditions," Van Handle said. "It's much more certain upfront. ... It was a good, honest effort on the part of the department to make things flow more smoothly."
For AMS' environmental systems group, business has picked up since the early 1990s as states moved to implement amendments to the Clean Air Act, Labovich said.
"What it forced a number of states to do was rethink their permitting process," he said. "We saw technology as a way of helping them comply."
Computer technology is a natural fit for processing environmental data because there's so much of it, Labovich said.
For example, New Jersey's air quality division receives about 5,000 permit requests a year, according to Ebeid.
The solid waste, water and hazardous materials divisions have to process annually thousands of compliance reports.
Labovich expects AMS' environmental group, which has increased its revenues 35 percent over the last three years, to earn between $15 million and $17 million in 1998. "It's a very healthy niche," he said.
The system AMS designed for New Jersey was featured at a 32-state technology exposition at the National Governors' Association's annual meeting in Milwaukee Aug. 1-4.
Overall, AMS had revenues of $872 million in 1997. It has more than doubled revenues over the past four years and increased its staff from 3,500 to 8,000. A publicly traded company, AMS is one of the 20 largest consulting firms in the world.
Despite improvements, changes at New Jersey's environmental department haven't been easy, Ebeid said.
Since 1994, the department has trimmed 600 employees from its work force as part of a massive restructuring.
The biggest hurdle?
"It's leading the employees and managers to recognize there's a new way of doing business," Ebeid said. "That continues to be a challenge."
New Jersey: The Online State
The state of New Jersey issued the following vision statement regarding its information technology goals for its citizens.
It aims to provide consumers with the highest level of
government services by:
- Strategically investing in technology and developing partnerships to deliver responsive business solutions;
- Creating a collaborative and challenging work environment;
- Providing easy access to timely and accurate information.