Management & Labor

Technology for Tough Times

Struggling to deliver more services with fewer resources and to rise to the twin challenges of transparency and accountability, state and local leaders are counting...
by | July 31, 2009
 

Struggling to deliver more services with fewer resources and to rise to the twin challenges of transparency and accountability, state and local leaders are counting on technology to help them navigate these difficult times.

When they gathered in Minneapolis for Governing 's Managing Technology conference, the question on everyone's lips was, "How can technology help?"

The first topic: economic recovery. "Recovery.gov could be the game-changer in state government," said Gopal Khanna, Minnesota CIO and current president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. States are scrambling to meet the stringent data-tracking and data-reporting requirements of the federal stimulus package, but Khanna sees a permanent impact of this effort on government, far beyond the two-year period of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "The big effect of Recovery.gov will be seen after those two years are up. We're creating an environment that is more effective and efficient."

For many governments, the push for fiscal accountability isn't a new notion. As Mark Testoni, president of SAP Public Services, noted, "In many places, these initiatives date back prior even to Y2K. What ARRA is creating is a new impetus, a new drive focused on outcomes. It's not just, 'Where is my money going?' It's, 'What am I getting for it?'"

Take Maine, for example. The state has been providing publicly available spending data for years, said state CIO Dick Thompson. But the federal demands are forcing the state to become more responsive and timely in how it provides information. "We had an approach that was really kind of static," Thompson said. In general, the attitude was, " 'We'll provide you the information we think you'd like to see, and if you'd like more, you can fill out a Freedom of Information request.' Now, there's been a sea change."

That shift also is reshaping how governments deliver services. Hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs demand an increase in efficiency. It's critical that governments act now to innovate, said Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. "We're in an era of continuous, nonstop improvement," Pawlenty said. "The issue of how we manage technology will be one of the key discussion points in the coming decades and the coming generation. This isn't going to be a choice."

Technology has become a fully integrated part of almost every serious discussion within government. No longer should the state chief information officer be seen as a technologist, said Michigan CIO Ken Theis, whose state is facing one of the most pronounced economic crises in the nation. "It's about government policy initatives, and how technology can help facilitate those achievements." When Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm calls Theis these days, it's not to talk about technology. It's about what he can do to help, for example, the state unemployment office keep up with the influx of new cases. "You've got to get to that mindset where they're not looking at you as a CIO," says Theis, "but as someone who can help fix problems."

In other places, governments are asking how technology can help make cities greener--not because of environmental altruism, but in order to cut down on energy costs. Mayors are quickly adapting to this new reality. As St. Petersburg, Florida, Mayor Rick Baker says, "If you try to sell environmental programs based on, 'It's the right thing to do,' you're going to make some progress, but it'll be slow. But if you can show how it will benefit the community from an economic perspective, you'll get major buy-in." His example: The city of St. Petersburg recently converted all its traffic lights from traditional bulbs to more efficient LED units. Baker said that wouldn't have happened if he'd pushed for it with a strictly environmental argument. But the switchover--which cost $450,000--will save the city $150,000 a year. "So it pays for itself in three years and then it's a 33 percent return on investment," he explains.

In fact, with the help of technology, the go-green movement seems to be accelerating. Take Utah's decision last year to implement a four-day work week for state employees. By closing public buildings on Fridays, the state estimates it will save up to $4 million annually on energy expenses. It's a cost-saving innovation, said Steve Fletcher, the state CIO, "but we were concerned about citizens' access to government services." So Utah stepped up its efforts to move citizen services online. Already a state with a robust Web site, Utah now offers more than 850 services over the Internet--and counting. "It has been wildly successful," said Fletcher.

As for green IT, many of the energy efficiencies and cost savings are just common sense, said John Gillispie, Iowa's tech chief. Gillispie detailed his state's efforts to switch to two-sided paper settings on all printers and to automatically turn off desktop computers at night when they're not in use. But one of the biggest successes? Turning off the lights. "Three percent of all the power you use in IT is for the lights in your data centers," he said, referring to the sprawling warehouses filled with humming computer servers. "But most of the time, there's nobody in there! Turn off the lights!"

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