By Colin Wood

In the map above, red signifies a grade in the A category; blue signifies a grade in the B category; and gray signifies a grade in the C category. Click a state to learn its exact grade, and why that grade was given. The contents of this map are also available at the end of this story

Results for the 2014 Digital States Survey are in, and they paint a picture of progress in the world of government IT.

Three states received an A grade this year as Michigan and Utah, two states that consistently score highly on the survey, are now joined in the top echelon by Missouri, bumped up from a B+ grade in 2012.

Every two years, the Center for Digital Government (CDG), the research and advisory arm of Government Technology’s parent company e.Republic, evaluates state government’s ability to improve internal processes and better serve citizens. This year’s results are positive, and foreshadow a bright future, said CDG Executive Director Todd Sander.

“States have made thoughtful, and for the most part, wise decisions on where they invested over the last couple years in particular,” Sander said. “They needed to because financial resources were scarce and the competition in the enterprise was high. We’re starting to see that really pay off now.”

Of the 50 states surveyed, 21 improved their grade since 2012, 17 states remained the same, and 12 states saw a drop. As a group, the states are doing well and even the states with lower grades didn’t drop by much, Sander said. All 11 states with decreased grades dropped by just one step, going from an A- to a B+, for instance.

The distribution of grades is trending up in 2014, with eight states in the A range, the same as in 2012, and 30 states in the B range, up from 22 in 2012. Twelve states received grades in the C range, and no states scored lower than a C-, compared to 2012, when Florida and Idaho both received D grades.

Connecticut and Idaho each made big jumps this year, Connecticut moving from a C up to an A-, and Idaho improved from a D to a B. Connecticut’s progress is largely a result of Gov. Dannel Malloy pushing for a stronger emphasis on technology. Florida’s bump from a D to a C was facilitated by legislation that revived the state CIO’s office for the second time in recent years.

Missouri Makes the Grade

Missouri’s jump from a B+ to an A was partially the result of work done around collaboration. Projects like the 100 Missouri Miles Challenge, a website designed to encourage citizens to exercise and share their progress through social media, demonstrated a successful marriage of civic engagement, data, and modern technologies. Missourians have reported more than 2.3 million miles traveled on state trails since the project’s launch.

“They’ve done a lot of good work in supporting the legislative and judicial branch,” Sander said. “One of the most important things is they’ve done a really good job of defining and describing how what they’re doing is aligned with the policy, position and priorities of the governor, the legislature, and the citizens of Missouri, and how they’re using technology to directly support those.”

Like Utah and Michigan, Missouri excelled in the six areas of judging criteria more so than the other 47 states, Sander said. The states that scored A grades did the best job of making their strategies consistent with their state’s priorities and policies; proving a quantifiable return on investment through IT; demonstrating progress over the past two years; using creative and innovative solutions; collaborating between departments and jurisdictions; and using successful approaches to transparency, privacy and security.

Missouri CIO Tim Robyn said the state's success stems from executive leadership from Gov. Jay Nixon and support from the Legislature -- support that continues throughout state government. “It is certainly an honor for our state to be mentioned alongside Utah and Michigan, and there are literally thousands of hard-working individuals that have been involved in our efforts,” Robyn said. “The willingness to work together has allowed our team of dedicated state IT professionals and private-sector partners to work together and change the way government operates, making it more effective and efficient while enhancing citizen access to services.”

Utah at the Top

In addition to receiving an A grade in 2014, Utah scored an A in 2012 and 2010, placed first in 2008 before a grading system was adopted, and scored consistently well in each previous year. By management’s account, that success is derived largely from an emphasis on meeting public expectation of service delivery.

The public expects to be able to interact with their government using new convenient technologies, and with the new services that states like Utah are delivering, that expectation is being met, Sander said. “Particularly Utah has done an awful lot with raising the bar on electronic services, on direct citizen engagement, not just from the push information at them standpoint, but actually opportunities with them to engage and transact and do business with government,” he said. “All three of the As have done a lot in that regard.”

Utah Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher cited the state’s project management as one of the key reasons for the continued success. “Utah has a good portfolio management process that we use every year that makes sure we’re doing things in every area,” Fletcher said. “The fact that Utah is consolidated into a single IT organization helps us a lot because we can really focus resources, and everything comes under a common direction.”

Utah’s IT organization was consolidated in 2005 by the state Legislature, pooling all cabinet-level IT functions into one central agency. Utah Chief Information Officer Mark VanOrden agreed that consolidating IT functions has given the state a huge advantage that has translated into more online services and a higher rate of civic tech adoption than many other states.

Utah now offers about 1,100 online services, VanOrden said. “Last year we had over 33 million transactions that the public performed online,” he said. “A year and a half ago, the University of Utah did a study on those transactions and found that for every transaction we perform online as compared to someone coming into one of our offices, we save over $13 per transaction.”

Online services are therefore extremely important to Utah state government, VanOrden said, and they will continue to launch programs like their weekly unemployment insurance claims program, which has completely eliminated paper-based processing, and the state’s Vehicle and Dealer Registration System (VADRS), which launched in October 2013.

VADRS manages more than 2.5 million titles and registrations annually, 2,700 dealership and body shop licenses, and 12,000 sales licenses -- it brought a higher level of customer service and reduced costs for the state, VanOrden said. The overhaul involved the training of more than 300 people, and support from more than 24 county offices. But it was worth the huge effort, he said, because the state's department of motor vehicles leads the nation in online registration. 

“We’ve got a very innovative population here in Utah. Ninety-four percent of the population has access to the Web, which leads the nation. Most people are very computer literate in the state, and that helps us be successful,” VanOrden said, adding that the state’s portal saw visitors from more than half of the state’s population of 2.8 million people last month.

Being a successful IT organization mainly comes down to having good people, he said. “I’ve got a chief operating officer who worked in the private sector for 35 years and was the CIO for a Fortune 500 company,” he said. “I’ve got a chief information security officer who worked with Deloitte in security assessments and state governments for 15 years. Dave Fletcher sitting next to me here is probably the smartest human being I’ve ever met, and besides that, he’s very forward thinking and innovative. I’m just surrounded by very good people.”

High Marks for Michigan

In Michigan, consistent success has come from a wide range of consistent support, said CIO David Behen. In addition to scoring an A in 2014, Michigan also scored an A in 2012 and 2010, and placed among the top two positions going back to 2004.

“It is the executive sponsorship and leadership from Gov. [Rick] Snyder and the support we get from the legislators and our agency partners,” Behen said. “Being a centralized IT organization, those attributes are what make us successful, plus the great team we have here – not just the IT team, it’s also our IT strategic partners from the private sector that come in and help us do the things we’re very successful with.”

Michigan launched several large projects over the past two years that contributed to its success, Behen said, including a Medicaid compliance program, and a childrens’ well-being management system. Cybersecurity and mobile technology also remained a strong focus areas for the state, he said, adding that Michigan also launched an enterprise big data project last year and it's looking forward to seeing the fruits of that labor.

Michigan’s IT department also was recognized for its success in financial management. The state’s project and resource management has been streamlined in the past two years, something Behen said he’s proud of. “We have data now that can not only justify the project, but also we can track our projects so much better than we used to in the past," he said. "It allows for us to be accountable for the dollars that we’re given."

Behen recognized that many of the benefits his state and others are now realizing are the result of diligence and innovation wrought from hard economic times of the near past. Continuing that same mindset of innovation and collaboration is possible with concerted effort, he said.

“You don’t want to get fat and sassy, right? You want to stay on the edge of things,” Behen said. “I would hope that that continues, and I would say it’s not a bad exercise every so often for organizations public and private to go through looking at what you’re doing and how effective and efficient are you in that, and continuing on that path of improvement.”