Post-election E-Gov Spending in the States

Thomas R. Davies

If you were waiting for electronic government to surface as a major campaign issue in state or local government, you're probably still waiting. As a matter of fact, you had to look long and hard to even find e-gov mentioned by serious candidates.

By no means, however, does this suggest that e-gov is not on the radar screen of the winners. E-gov will gain attention in the months following the election, when key staff and transition teams begin asking themselves what to do now.

During the campaigns, most candidates stayed "on message," focusing their attentions on citizen concerns about education, health care and taxes. The connection between e-gov and these issues isn't always obvious. But elected officials and their staffs quickly will begin to connect the e-gov dots in the days ahead. When they do, e-gov will emerge as an appealing post-election strategy.

When the governors begin putting their imprints on their first-year budget recommendations, as most will do over the next few months, they will soon discover that e-gov is a way to significantly affect citizens' perceptions and help them accomplish their campaign promises.

One key to understanding what course e-gov may take is to see whether any of the key advisers, and likely senior appointees, are champions of e-gov. E-gov is fueled by visionary senior executives who are willing to be cheerleaders for new investments. In the honeymoon days of a new administration, the ability of these individuals to sell an e-gov vision can make all the difference.

The chief information officers are equally important to watch. Many new CIOs are being appointed either in response to campaign promises or as a result of the contributions they made during the campaigns. Both can be important signs that the CIO will have the ear of the new chief executive and actually may become part of the inner circle of advisers.

Fortunately, e-gov is turning out to be an equal opportunity for elected officials. Politicians of all stripes have all been jumping on the e-gov bandwagon. So any shift in the party affiliation of the states that occurred as a result of the elections should have only a minor impact on future e-gov spending.

While the conclusion of an election year, along with a continued healthy economy, should create an ideal climate for more spending on e-gov, not everything may be smooth sailing ahead. There are a few wild cards that deserve to be watched.

One is the national budget surplus. Budget surpluses the past few years at all levels of government have fueled IT spending in the states. Serious discussions to reduce the national surplus are likely to cause state and local governments to become more cautious. They will be unwilling to make new e-gov initiatives with multiyear commitments in funding.

State and local officials have been known to behave like deer caught in headlights if they believe future funding streams are at risk. E-gov spending easily could be hurt by discussions of reductions in the surplus-whether they happen or not.

Another wild card is the overall approach to federal involvement in the affairs of state and local government. It's not only how much money the federal government is giving the states that counts, but also what strings are attached.

Block grants to the states, for example, are much more likely under a Republican-controlled executive branch and Congress. There are legislative proposals to establish block grants for Medicaid and education funding, similar to what has worked so well with welfare reform.

With block grants, the states have a lot more freedom to choose how to spend the money. These grants would give the states a lot of discretion; the kind of freedom they need to spend federal dollars on e-gov.

The governors themselves represent a third wild card. The e-gov track records of governors during their campaigns are not a reliable indicator of the importance they attach to e-gov once they take office. Some governors with a national reputation as champions of e-gov devoted little, if any, time to IT during their campaigns. Once they took the oath of office, they rapidly made the transition from campaigning to governing and reached out to the IT industry for ideas on using technology to improve services and government performance.

In an election year, companies can make a serious mistake looking in the rear view mirror of the just-completed campaign to project what is likely to unfold. Their best bet is to look ahead, anticipating the turns in the road. And helping the newly elected officials use e-gov to establish a track record that will help them win their next election.

Thomas Davies is senior vice president at Current Analysis, Sterling, Va. His e-mail address is tdavies@currentanalysis.com.

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