Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Ken Svedjan arrived in the North Dakota House of Representatives in 1991, something was missing: computers. Legislators, whose desks serve as their offices, didn't want their scarce space cluttered.
Svedjan didn't pay much attention to technology either, until he noticed that the governor's budget called for large IT spending increases. He suggested, and received, a committee to study the issue. "I really didn't realize how much I didn't know about technology until I got on that committee," he says.
Such is the life of the legislator, who is expected to make policy and funding decisions on a multitude of topics, even ones about which he or she knows little. As Svedjan found, states spend a lot on IT, and appropriators, even those without much interest in the subject, exercise power over technology projects.
Good communication is important in building a good executive- legislative relationship on IT issues, legislators at Governing's Managing Technology conference said. And it helps if the chief information officer is more of a policy officer than a technology guru. Legislators don't want to be inundated with technical jargon. What they do want to know, said Wisconsin state Senator Ted Kanavas, himself the founder of a software company, is why a project is worthwhile and what they can do to reduce the risk of failure.
Even when legislators have good information, however, that's no guarantee of prudent decisions. Svedjan noted that often it's easier to kill a project than to try to understand it. "Our biggest challenge," he said, "is with the legislators themselves."