The Age of the Tech-Savvy Legislator

An influx of young lawmakers could lead to better technology investments.
April 2013
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

It’s fairly common to hear CIOs complain that elected officials just don’t “get it,” that senior leaders don’t grasp the importance of technology investments or simply have no interest in the topic. Fortunately, it’s a problem with a short shelf life as a new generation of lawmakers takes office.

Ground zero for the shift may be the Oklahoma House of Representatives, where the Government Modernization Committee has become both a magnet for young lawmakers and a forum for IT-powered government reforms. State Rep. Jason Murphey, a 35-year-old software developer, chairs the committee. He says legislative turnover -- led in part by term limits enacted by Oklahoma voters in 1990 -- is driving a shift in how state elected leaders view technology issues. “We’re seeing the age of the legislature getting younger and younger,” he says. “And those members have an extreme proclivity toward this venue.”

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Over the past few years, the committee has tackled issues that include consolidating state data centers, improving software purchasing policies, promoting electronic payments, and simplifying licensing and permitting. In particular, Murphey teamed with another “Gov Mod” Committee member, 36-year-old Rep. David Derby, on legislation that consolidated state computer systems under a central technology agency and created a cabinet-level CIO position to run it. Those changes have saved about $85 million over the past two years.

Murphey, a conservative Republican, views technology as a way to shrink government spending. But he says the Government Modernization Committee’s work tends to be nonpartisan. He contends that using technology to cut the cost of running government should win support on both sides of the aisle. Big government supporters can argue for plowing operational savings back into government programs, he says, while small government proponents can push to return money to taxpayers. “I have my personal opinions and I’m not shy about sharing them, but I very much understand that there are more legislators and state leaders involved in the policy discussion than just me.”

Oklahoma’s technology consolidation and other reforms have raised the Gov Mod Committee’s stature, says Murphey, who acknowledges that the body was viewed as “kind of gimmicky” when it was formed in 2009. It’s since become an attractive place to be, especially for younger lawmakers. Six of the committee’s 10 members are younger than 40.

Younger certainly doesn’t automatically mean more innovative. But an influx of lawmakers who’ve relied on computers, the Internet and mobile devices for most of their lives could help alter the conversation between elected leaders and CIOs.

The rap on technology leaders for years has been that they speak in unintelligible jargon and are so focused on nuts-and-bolts computing issues that they can’t effectively connect IT investment to issues that resonate with leadership. That’s changing too. A growing number of CIOs aren’t old-school computer geeks anymore. They’re strong managers who can link deployment of new technology to the priorities of a mayor or governor.

Those are the kind of arguments that get a sympathetic ear in Oklahoma these days. “I have been here six years now, and when we first started talking about these concepts, they were alien to many members,” Murphey says. “These new waves of legislators get it, and they’re going to make a big difference.”