Techies At The Top

When the governor or mayor comes from the IT business world, it makes implementing e-government easier--at least it should.
by | January 2003

November's election provided another state with something many technology officials would give their eyeteeth for: a chief executive with technology acumen and enthusiasm bred in the private sector. Craig Benson, the newly elected governor of New Hampshire, co-founded Cabletron Systems, a computer networking company. He's one in a short line of governors who come from the business sector with technology expertise. Two years ago, Mark Warner, a founding partner of a technology venture capital fund, became governor of Virginia. On the local level, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Wall Street executive, developed a specialized computer system that delivers financial news and analysis, before he turned to politics. Can there be any way these guys don't get it when it comes to the merits of technology?

Clearly, tech-business governors come into office highly attuned to the wired world. The technology shortfalls they see in government are like red capes to a bull: They need to be attacked.

If Warner is any example, an "IT governor" will tackle head on the task of wresting technology processes from the hands of those in state government who have been loathe to make changes. Warner has a strategic plan to improve technology, attract investments to a technology-based economy, consolidate all IT functions into one new agency and transform service delivery to citizens.

While many governors in surrounding states campaigned on traditional issues such as education and health care, Warner ran on a new-economy platform with technology at its heart. So, while many governors now faced with enormous budget deficits are scrimping on technology expenditures, Warner plans to keep putting money into state technology to reap the savings that technological efficiencies bring.

A recent assessment shows that the state is not in good shape on technology, says CIO George Newstrom. Virginia doesn't leverage its buying power. There's a stovepipe approach to technology. Agencies don't talk to each other. Systems are redundant. But that report has only energized Warner to turn that situation around--and to save the state millions by using technology more efficiently.

"The role IT is going to play in how we deliver government services is more important than ever," Newstrom says, a year into the job. "We've got to transform state government." That makes Newstrom's job unlike many other state or local CIO's. He does not spend a lot of time educating the governor on the need for embracing technology. "The good news and the bad news is that on any given day he understands my job better than I do," Newstrom says.

Benson in New Hampshire has yet to settle into the governor's office, but he campaigned on the idea of putting state services online for citizens and businesses. He is astounded that although New Hampshire has a high concentration of high-tech businesses, it ranks near the bottom in providing government services online.

As a businessman, he used to tell his company's employees, "You've got to sell them, not tell them." The same, he says, is true for government employees. "You've got to get them excited about participating and getting their ideas out there." He realizes he's got a big job ahead of him in a state that hasn't tackled much in the way of technology and that it will take a while to turn a big ship around. But as an outsider, he says, he "brings energy and new ideas" to the governorship.

New York Mayor Bloomberg has spent a career as the quintessential successful techie businessman. He told the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council recently that his administration wants to use technology to make people who work in his city do their jobs more effectively and that his administration will focus on the end results--the improvements--technology can bring. "The key to technology is not the purchase of it or the implementation. It's doing something with it," he says.

Clearly, the desire is there to harness technology to improve government efficiency. Whether these tech-business officials have the political savvy to push their ideas through and make them an accepted part of the way governments do business will play out over time. For the latest news about the business and management of information technology in state and local government, go to Tech Talk Online on Governing's Web site at Governing.com.

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