Government technology is undergoing a shift unlike anything else in the past decade -- or perhaps ever. The federal stimulus plan is completely overhauling how governments will use technology to monitor how their recovery funds are being spent.
As Governing's annual Managing Technology conference kicked off in Minneapolis this week, all talk was on the stimulus and the role technology will play as states disperse and track their recovery spending. Not since the run-up to Y2K have states focused so singularly on a particular technology initiative. And, given the aggresive timeline for this project -- states must begin reporting their data on the federal www.recovery.gov site in October -- this may indeed turn out to be an effort of unprecedented scale.
"Recovery.gov could be the game-changer in state government," said Gopal Khanna, the Minnesota CIO and current president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, who welcomed the Governing conferees to Minneapolis. States will be scrambling to meet the stringent data-reporting requirements of the stimulus, he said, but the effort will ultimately have a much longer-lasting impact than the two-year period mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "The big effect of Recovery.gov will be seen after those two years are up. We're creating an environment that is more effective and efficient."
Tom Hanson, the commissioner of Minnesota's office of management and budget, echoed that sentiment. "We're not going to create a whole new structure that's just going to last for the next two years." This initative has the power, he said, to fundamentally change the way Minnesota and other states provide data to citizens.
For some -- or even most -- states, the push for fiscal accountability isn't a new notion. "Transparency issues didn't just start in February of this year," said Mark Testoni, the president of SAP Public Services, who spoke on a panel with government officials. "In many places, these initiatives date back prior even to Y2K. What ARRA is creating is a new impetus, a new drive focused on outcomes. It's not just, 'Where is my money going?' It's, 'What am I getting for it?'"
Take Maine, for example. That state has been providing publicly available spending data for years, said Maine CIO Richard Thompson. But the new federal recovery outlines are forcing the state to rethink the way it's been handling information. "We had an approach that was really kind of static," Thompson said. "It was, 'We'll provide you the information we think you'd like to see, and if you'd like more, you can fill out a Freedom of Information request.' Now, there's been a sea-change."
Needless to say, when states are overhauling their information systems on such a massive scale, there are challenges. Chief among them, according to Khanna, are security concerns, which he refers to as "the sleeper issue." When states are collecting this much data -- and making it publicly available -- they must make every possible effort to ensure that personal information remains private.
There's another concern, too. As states work to provide all this data about how they're doing, some of the information will, inevitably, make the state look bad. "It's definitely a two-edged sword," said Thompson. "It shows our warts as well as our bright spots. We've had to just say, 'That's okay.' It helps us see where we have work to do." The key, he said, is to provide citizens with honest, unencumbered, unbiased information about how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. "The minute you start using this as a promotional tool, it loses its impact. It becomes sales pitch."