Make Room at the Top for IT

As budgets tighten, IT officials need to let state leaders know about the benefits, costs and results of technology investments.
August 2001

State and local leaders are increasingly knowledgeable about the Internet and its importance to their governments. But several critical issues are not particularly visible and need significant attention.

The first is finding revenue sources to support the needed investment in information technology infrastructure. The retrenchment in the national economy--and the resulting slowdown in state and local revenue growth--means that IT funding will be competing with other very pressing budget needs in the years ahead. Some states, such as Iowa, are facing dramatic reductions in planned year-over-year IT expenditures. But new sources of revenue for IT investments are desperately needed to prevent states from losing ground.

Not just any revenue source will do. It has to be large enough for the job, be supportable by the top political leaders in the states, not depend on transactions, able to accommodate technological refreshments when obsolescence sets in and lead to integration of government services.

It's a tall order but still just a partial list of the more important funding requirements. Each jurisdiction will need to come up with an approach that works within the constraints of their state statutes and politics. Some forward-looking states such as Massachusetts rely heavily on state bonds for funding much-needed IT projects. Unfortunately, others have become overly dependent on budget surpluses, and those are evaporating fast.

In an era of tight finances, IT officials must demonstrate and communicate the benefits, costs and results of technology investments. There is a thirst for this type of information. The decision making that surrounds technology is often void of reliable data on what the full cost of the investment is, what the tangible results are expected to be, how the investment will benefit citizens and who will benefit. And it's time to get serious about linking performance measures to IT investments.

With the rapid growth of IT budgets, which many states experienced over the past year, the need for communication is sometimes overlooked. But the payoff for over-communicating, as demonstrated by the excellent outreach programs states put in place to support Y2K, is immeasurable. Ongoing efforts by established strategic communication offices, such as exist in Arizona, can inform and educate all stakeholders that influence IT budgets.

Project monitoring and management remains an ongoing challenge. No jurisdiction, or company for that matter, regardless of how unblemished its track record may be, is free from worry about runaway projects that underperform, overshoot budgets and miss critical deadlines.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to decouple project management issues from procurement-related ones. Most runaway projects have their genesis in the procurement process. While there is always enough blame to go around, something is seriously amiss when so many well-managed jurisdictions and best-in-class companies have been negatively impacted. Neither the IT industry nor top IT executives are very satisfied with the current state of affairs, yet no major initiatives are under way to collectively address the situation. Perhaps this is a leadership issue for the corporate advisory groups that are set up within NASCIO and other organizations.

Figuring out what challenges to take on and what priority to assign them is one of the toughest decisions top government executives make. There is no guarantee that IT will continue to be at the top of the pecking order. Reports are already surfacing that states that recently elevated IT to their high-priority list are now moving on to other pressing concerns.

IT needs a voice at the highest levels of government and across the government enterprise. Today, states such as Utah, where the CIO meets weekly with the governor and participates in strategy sessions with key aides, are the exception. Yet, without continual "face time" with the highest executive and legislative leaders, it is unrealistic to expect support for IT investments to be there in the crunch.

IT is now at the core of government and permeates the delivery of services and the operations of government. IT leaders are being looked to as the ones to take the lead in educating state and local officials about this new reality. It will help to show these officials how IT can help them accomplish their political goals and further their careers. This personal connection is likely to be the key to unlocking the door for top leadership support and helping overcome fears about advanced applications of IT, such as online voting.

Waves of technological innovation result in fairly predictable management challenges for government, such as getting technology plans developed and funded, training the work force and managing to results. The one wild card is always leadership.