The Tin Cup Rules

Budget makers need to know where IT success stories are and the difference investment in technology is now making.
April 2002

For the first time in almost a decade, technology leaders in state and local government face the daunting challenge of persuading top officials to continue to invest in IT. For some technology leaders, fighting for funds is a new and disorienting experience. Others may not even fight--they may figure that those who control the purse strings have experienced the benefits of IT and are now believers, despite budget pressures.

No doubt Y2K, the Internet and an unprecedented period of economic growth contributed to a situation where most jurisdictions could afford big investments in technology and still meet other needs. But now, state leaders are once again struggling to balance demands for scarce financial resources. Schools, transportation, health care and other necessities are competing head to head with IT for whatever monies are available.

How are technology leaders to compete for dollars in this climate? The short answer is to make the best case possible for continued investment in IT.

How do you do that? A first step is to know who IT's friends are at the top and whether they are with you. Without strong support in the budget offices and the money committees, it's doubtful that IT projects, regardless of their merit, will survive unscathed. Assuming the support will be there, as it may have been over the past few years, can lead to unpleasant surprises.

Now is not the time to rest on technology's laurels, to presuppose that the benefits of IT speak for themselves. Many top officials, even as they accepted the need for increased IT spending in the recent past, still don't really see how e-government and other IT projects directly benefit their constituents or contribute to their communities' quality of life.

Yet these are precisely the connections that need to be made. Those making the money decisions need to know where the success stories are and exactly what positive difference the investment in IT is now making. Far too often what passes for success are simply self-serving Web site beauty contests. While Web site awards make good headlines, they are not likely to save an IT project from the budget knives.

Rather, decision makers need to know how their government is better off as a result of the significant investment that has been made in IT over the past five years. What contribution, for instance, IT has made to improvements in education test scores, to the decline in crime rates or to improvements in the productivity of government workers.

These tough economic times are an opportunity for state and local technology leaders to align their IT spending needs more closely with underlying public policy concerns. Those who stand to benefit from increased spending for Homeland Security are rapidly doing so. Plans for deploying enhanced network security, richer databases, advanced communication systems and more sophisticated surveillance and identification systems are being closely tied to new security goals.

Influential stakeholders can help make the case for continued investments by becoming proactive champions for IT. Technology is now making a significant contribution to the economic development of many cities and counties. There are powerful constituents in these communities who are in a position to lend their support. But their assistance needs to be cultivated.

A step all technology leaders should be taking is to link IT spending to clear performance measures, especially to improvements in government efficiency. Too many CIOs have only paid lip service to the need to establish the performance impact of technology spending. They have chosen to ride powerful waves of funding momentum behind such events as Y2K and e-government. But no area of spending, regardless of how essential one thinks it is, can escape being held accountable for performance.

In times as difficult as these there is no substitute for developing a compelling business case that shows how short-term, tangible benefits will be realized. In the Medicaid fraud and abuse area, for example, advanced database technologies are helping states, such as Minnesota, save millions of dollars annually. Strong business cases for online e-government services have been developed in Hennepin County, Minnesota, and Montgomery County, Maryland. Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum says that the new Department of Electronic Government has already saved the state as much as $18.8 million.

Making the case for continued IT investments is not a burden that can or should be shouldered solely by the IT organization. There are many, inside and outside of government, who have a lot at stake. Now is the time to rally around the IT banner. If not, IT will take a back seat until flusher times return to state and local government.