Governors and E-Expectations

This year's crop of new governors faced a transition task that their predecessors did not. Incoming administrations have always had to change names on office doors and update highway welcome signs. This time, administration employees also had to update state Web sites to reflect the change in administration.
by | March 2001

This year's crop of new governors faced a transition task that their predecessors did not. Incoming administrations have always had to change names on office doors and update highway welcome signs. This time, administration employees also had to update state Web sites to reflect the change in administration.

Portals? The Internet? Electronic services? Four years ago, these were pretty much unknowns--certainly not yet seen as critical responsibilities for new governors. Most of the public hadn't taken more than a few baby steps on the Internet. The most recent administrations could be forgiven for getting taken by surprise by the exponential growth of information technology. But constituents won't be so patient in an era now dominated by electronic activity. Expectations have changed.

Governors and chief information officers are focused as never before on building electronic government and getting it right. "E-government has jumped up quite a bit on governors' agendas," says Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors' Association. And with budget surpluses starting to dry up, he says, they realize that the opportunity for lowering the costs of government through technology are "quite dramatic."

TECH TRANSITIONS

Starting soon after the November election, West Virginia's new governor, Bob Wise, had a transition-team task force study technology issues. Its report was delivered on January 3, nearly two weeks before Wise's inauguration

West Virginia's chief technology officer, Keith Comstock, knows that Wise's administration faces a formidable task: selling legislators on technology changes that might not yield results for years. Part of Comstock's game plan: moving quickly to electronically enable certain government functions that may be small but very visible, while at the same time trying to work on data standardization, system migration, procurement reform and all the other things that are difficult and can take years.

"If a legislator can say, `Gee, I just renewed my hunting license online,' it gives carte blanche to continue with the hard things," Comstock says. "It's a tough struggle. We're a small state with limited resources. We have to be smart."

MINEFIELD DETOURS

The new administration in Delaware is only too keenly aware of the IT minefields that tripped up the previous administration. The state government had not been handling large-scale technology projects well, says Gregory Patterson, communications director for Ruth Ann Minner, the new governor. Projects came in late and over budget. "Anyone would have to admit that technology projects were not our strongest area," says Patterson.

Minner wants to take a fresh look at how IT is handled, says state Treasurer Jack Markell, chairman of an Information Services Task Force created January 4. The task force is conducting interviews that will cover state agencies and the Office of Information Services, and it is trying to understand best practices around the country. It's all about "how you get bigger bang for the buck on IT generally," says Markell. "It could be organizational structure, it could be funding, it could be recruiting. We're looking at the management of information technology."

Doing it right becomes particularly important in light of a $35 million shortfall projected for the end of fiscal year 2001. But it's premature to say how a tight economy will affect the task force's spending recommendations, Markell notes. "People have to understand if we're spending in this environment that we're spending it wisely," he says.

THE COST-SAVING PUZZLE

Delaware isn't the only state expecting budget difficulties. North Carolina is moving aggressively to address a shortfall approaching $800 million. And yet IT programs and proj-ects aren't at great risk at the moment. In fact, the opposite is true, says CIO Ron Hawley, who kept his job from the previous administration after the new governor, Michael F. Easley, took office. The state sees IT as one of the most important pieces of the cost-saving puzzle. "We need to maximize savings through enhanced use of technology," says Hawley.

The state is already seeing cost savings from a Web portal and a motor-vehicle registration renewal feature implemented last year. The state had expected 5,000 online renewals from September through December. As it turned out, there were 18,000 in December alone.

North Carolina also is negotiating an e-procurement deal that would be used not just by state agencies but also by local governments, universities and community colleges. By aggregating purchases and buying electronically, participating agencies and jurisdictions can save a great deal of money. While a paper purchase order costs $75 to $80 to process, an electronic PO comes in at about $30, says Hawley--a powerful incentive to continue investing in information technology. "We in North Carolina believe technology provides the opportunity for efficiency and is absolutely essential," he says.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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