Eye on the States

IT Grades That Make a Difference

Thomas Davies

By Thomas Davies

These days, it is fashionable to issue report cards on the performance of government. While sometimes superficial, and often more entertaining than informative, report cards do fill a need to communicate in simple terms how well a government is living up to expectations.

Admittedly, grading the states on their information technology is fraught with potential problems. Grades are often based on self-reporting; they lack clear standards; they rely on subjective consensus; the qualifications of the graders are rarely disclosed; they evaluate processes not results; and the application of criteria to specific states is fuzzy at best.

So the issue is not whether there is room for improvement in the process; clearly there is. The real question is: Are they grading the right stuff?

One recent performance report on state information technology based its grades, in part, on criteria such as how much effort goes into IT training; the mix of central coordination and agency control; the use of cost-benefit analyses; and the existence of a multiyear plan.

The relationship between these criteria and true IT performance is tenuous at best. When most citizens register their cars, for example, they don't really care whether a cost-benefit analysis was done to justify the expenditure on the motor vehicle registration system. Nor do they care whether the agency has a strategic IT plan on the shelf. And the last thing they would probably ask is whether the agency is managed with the appropriate mix of central controls.

What people are truly interested in knowing is what kind of customer experience they are going to have. Is the state going to enable them to register their car conveniently over the World Wide Web? Will they be able to do this in a hassle-free manner? Can they register any time of the day or week? Will the state remind them of other requirements that must be taken care of, such as having their driver's license renewed? Can they easily shop for other government services at the same time?

These considerations are what most citizens consider meaningful when it comes to grading IT. For governors and key members of the state legislatures, the critical question is whether their states are taking full advantage of IT's power to improve the quality of life for its citizens both at home and at work.

The good news is that a grading system that measures the contribution of IT to the quality of life is doable. With so much of government moving to the Web, one can go online and determine in short fashion what kind of government shopping experience people and businesses are having. It is also possible to compare how well the states are doing in terms of making the shopping experience best-in-class for their citizens.

Those who focus on academic-based notions of what a well-managed state IT enterprise looks like are in for a rude awakening. Elected officials, their spouses and many other family members are on the Web experiencing first hand the power of IT. By going online, these officials can see for themselves what other states are doing. They do not need experts to tell them whether their shopping experience was pleasant or not.

What elected officials across the nation want to know is how their states stack up with Web-based services. What's more, they want to know who is doing it better, why state governments cannot mimic online leaders like Amazon.com and steps they can take to improve things.

And when these elected officials finally issue their grades, they are likely to be in the form of adding funds for IT projects, personnel evaluations and approved budgets — grades that truly count.

Thomas Davies is senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. in McLean, Va.

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