At 6 feet 4, Steve Kolodney is accustomed to standing above the crowd. But he is a towering figure in more than just a physical sense. Over 30 years in the information technology field, in two state governments and in private enterprise, he has consistently set standards of accomplishment and innovation beyond the ordinary, and motivated his colleagues and employees to meet them. During the past five years, as Washington State’s chief information officer, he has turned in a typically superb performance. When IT professionals gather at conferences to talk about advances in e-commerce and e-government, the conversation turns remarkably quickly to what is going on in Olympia.
Kolodney’s agency has achieved a digital transformation that has connected every university and public school in the state to a high-speed network. It has made it possible for businesses, citizens and state employees to access 240 different services online 24 hours a day. It offers automatic e-mail delivery to any voter who wants to keep up with state and local government news.
“If it were not for Steve and his vision, focus and hard-driving tenacity,” says Kolodney’s boss, Washington Governor Gary Locke, “we could not have achieved the success that we have, the national acclaim that we have, winning all of these awards for our Web site in competition with the private sector.”
Building on those successes, Kolodney is pushing ahead with a new venture, a six-month plan to introduce what will be called “TransactWashington.” This is a Web site that will accept and authenticate digital signatures from professionals who need special access to restricted records, such as doctors seeking case histories from the Department of Health. Five agencies now are involved in a testing phase.
Meanwhile, schoolchildren and university students are realizing benefits from the state’s K20 network, completed in December of last year, which provides high-speed, high-bandwidth Internet access. “It opens up distance learning to every child in the state whether urban or rural, east side or west,” Kolodney says. He cites K20 as a symbol of his belief that his job is not just to be a techie, but to use technology to forward a public policy agenda for the state.
A crucial part of Kolodney’s approach is his insistence that he is running a business, one that must satisfy its customers and compete on price and quality of service. Washington’s CIO heads an agency of 428 people that has annual revenues of more than $120 million and serves 700-plus customers, from state agencies to local governments, school districts, Indian tribes and hospitals. They receive telecommunications, computer and Web-based services and pay to use them.
One recent study by a private consultant found that Kolodney’s agency was supplying these services at a cost 16 percent below the average price charged by competing vendors. While at least 10 state governments have had private companies come in and set up their Web portals in exchange for transaction fees, Washington was able to do the job in-house.
Part of Kolodney’s success relates to the structure of Washington’s governmental system. Unlike CIOs in many places, Kolodney has the advantage of running an agency that can generate its own revenues and make many of its own decisions about how to spend them. Still, even his state’s occasional technology skeptics agree that if he was given a favorable situation, he has been exceptionally good making the most of it.
Critics sometimes complain that Washington State’s focus on cyber-government leaves the poor and the computerless high and dry, and widens the digital divide. Kolodney disagrees. He insists that none of the traditional services in Washington are being shut down because e-government has been stepped up. “Everyone wins,” he argues. “If some people step out of line, the line gets shorter.”
— Ellen Perlman
Photos by Rich Frishman