While “relaxing” at home in the evening, Val Oveson, Utah’s chief information officer, can be found at the computer in his study, helping people navigate the state’s Internet portal. When he signs onto his state e-mail account from home, the system recognizes his presence and automatically sends real-time questions his way from a “24/7 Live Help” link on the state Web site.
The CIO doesn’t have to take a turn as the answer man. But when the service started up last year, Oveson thought it was important to set an example for his staff. He also found it was a valuable way for him to understand the issues. The service is available 24 hours a day and didn’t require any extra staff or money. That’s because Oveson helped push the idea of training employees who work the graveyard shift watching dials and monitoring screens at the state’s data center to assist citizens as well.
As a result, Utah residents are learning that government can be accessible and responsive. Oveson hopes to make that point with the business community, too. About a year ago, Utah’s portal began offering the ability to register a business (a process that involves five different state agencies, the federal government and municipal governments) in a single online spot in as little as 20 minutes. “It’s the epitome of what we’re trying to do with e-government — get up above the silos and demonstrate to the public a single face,” Oveson says.
If users realize during the sign-up process that they need to chat with the Environmental Protection Agency, their bank or a rich uncle before they’re done, they have 120 days to come back to Utah.gov’s OneStop Business Registration without losing any of the information they started plugging in. Oveson expects more and better online services from all agencies. “Every time I talk to a department head,” he notes, the focus is ” ’How are Web services coming, what else is happening?’ ” When Oveson took the CIO’s job, there were 90 services available online. Now there are more than 200. He views his role as “planting seeds” and getting knowledgeable people to bring ideas to fruition.
When former Governor Mike Leavitt appointed Oveson to the position in January 2003, it was during a tumultuous time. A legislative audit on software purchasing practices and possible conflicts of interest in contract awards had sent the Information Technology Division into upheaval. The number one charge for the new CIO was to calm the place down and get people working together.
Oveson was uniquely qualified to do so. Having served as lieutenant governor, state auditor and chairman of the state tax commission, he knew the players in government and understood how politics works. He also was tech-savvy, having managed the state’s data center in the mid-1990s, reengineered the computer system used in revenue collection and cut the costs of running the state’s mainframes 68 percent through purchasing reforms. He was a techno-geek long before it was cool, lugging around a 40-pound “portable” computer the size of a sewing machine while working in the auditor’s office back in 1982.
Leavitt was impressed with the combination of Oveson’s public- and private-sector experience (he also had worked at a large CPA firm and as an auditor with his own practice) and figured he’d be the perfect candidate to implement the governor’s vision of online government, says Natalie Gochnour, the spokeswoman for Leavitt when he was Utah’s chief executive as well as now that he is EPA administrator.
Agency employees, who were not on the best of terms with the previous CIO, appreciate Oveson’s sensitivity to the human part of the technology equation. “The relationship with the agencies is probably Val’s greatest success,” says Randy Hughes, chief architect in the CIO’s office. Oveson’s communication and political skills helped heal some wounds and unite IT across the state.
There’s much work still to be done. Utah is moving ahead with a huge human services project to make data from Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the food stamp program easily available to caseworkers and other employees from three different agencies so they can do their jobs better. Oveson also is focusing more on security and the state is seeing some real changes in that area. And throughout it all is his insistence on offering — and even personally providing — good public service. “I love the interaction with citizens, the people and the processes,” he says.
— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Rick Egan