The Transition: A Dark-Horse Opportunity

Transition time is the right time to transform the government and economy -- as enabled by information technology.
December 6, 2006
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Bill Eggers' piece on November 22 is right on: given the recent election, "if ... serious change is going to happen in American government, it's most likely to happen at the state level." With many state transitions underway -- including those in which governors are staying in office -- the window of opportunity is open.

As I write this, transition teams are rushing to inventory their winnings, search for key staff, get ready for their first budgets, define agendas, etc.

In this whirlwind, it's all too easy to miss a key dark-horse opportunity, something invisible during the election that -- if not started now -- will unfortunately not be feasible again until after the next election. The opportunity: statewide transformation of the government and economy -- as enabled by information technology.

Please bear with me here.

I know this concept faces an uphill battle. "It's too slow." "It's too expensive." "People won't understand it." "Are you crazy?"

Those were good enough arguments ... in their day. But in most governments today, things have changed.

· Technology-based reforms are NOT too slow. It used to take years just to get the procurement through. But, with today's infrastructure, off-the-shelf software and development methods, many transformational projects -- like the 311 customer service center implementation in New York City -- can be implemented in about a year.

· It's NOT too costly. Per instruction executed, the cost of computing has fallen 75 percent since the 2002 election and 94 percent since 1998 (thank you, Moore's Law). More importantly, networks offering remote self-service -- as when auto and other licenses are renewed "online, not in line" -- now cut total social costs dramatically. IT-enabled transformation is essential for keeping up with demographic pressures for service.

· People WILL understand it. While people are skeptical of government "efficiency improvements," what they also don't understand -- and it bothers them -- is when government falls too far behind evolving business practices. When you call the Revenue Department with a problem on your tax bill, why can't they find your information like Visa can?

· It's NOT crazy. Reorganizing work for a computerized world is what business has been doing and must continue to do. Governments that don't keep pace will simply cost too much and push the good standards of living elsewhere. Nearly everything that any governor wants -- better health care, education, public safety and security, job development -- requires new tech-enabled work for delivery.

A five-point program for success:

· Start with online customer service. Take "online, not in line" to the next steps: responsive, integrated and friendly self-service. For many states, expanding the online work already done remains the easiest way forward. Through online service you can leverage those critical moments when customers are directly in touch and paying attention.

· Develop scorecards and make them transparent. What you measure will improve, once the bureaucracy knows you are committed. Use computers to greatly improve scorecard transparency, for stakeholders both outside and inside the government.

· Standardize and consolidate information infrastructure. Serious savings are possible by reducing multiple wired and wireless networks, financial management, HR, procurement, e-mail and other sharable systems to one or a few. Standardized infrastructure -- perhaps shown best by Singapore, Korea and other non-U.S. jurisdictions -- becomes the platform for yet bigger downstream improvements in cost and effectiveness.

· Prepare for a global, knowledge-based economy. While social safety nets are essential, protectionism will not work. Look to ideas like Maine's educational reforms -- laptops for every 7th- and 8th-grader -- and the electronic health records developing in Massachusetts and elsewhere for universal, effective and efficient health care. Government must ally with business and nonprofits to respond to the new threats and opportunities.

· Put statewide transformation on the short list. Given the problems facing state governments, transformation is the right goal. It's also feasible: Four years is enough to fully engage and show progress. However, transformation must be supported by the transition's first-round decisions: especially in budgeting and hiring. The first budget must focus on IT as a catalyst and tool for the cross-boundary innovations required for efficiency, equity and legitimacy. Key staff and department heads must be hired not only for their policy skills but also for their management capabilities and commitment to the governor's statewide transformation agenda.

Of course, not all states and governors will do this. The last time around, the leaders were Virginia with Governor Mark Warner and CIO George Newstrom, and Michigan with Governor Jennifer Granholm and CIO Teri Takai. This time, we need at least 10 governors and administrations to "get it."

Transformation is not a panacea, but it's doable if you work it hard and smart. It's not fundamentally a technology agenda, but a results agenda .

If you miss this window of opportunity, you probably must wait another four years. That's a shame and -- given how jobs are flowing to new locations around the globe -- truly dangerous.

Transition time is the right time to start with statewide transformation. Go for it.