In New York State's in-your-face political environment, her quiet demeanor stands out. Although Sharon Dawes, executive director of the Center for Technology in Government, doesn't come from a technical background, her capacity to build a consensus about applying the resources of the latest information technology to the practical problems of governance is legendary--even among the state's fractious policy, management and technology adversaries.
CTG's list of achievements ranges from a computerized triage tool for emergency-room mental-patient admissions to an electronic reference desk for permitting at Adirondack Park to--one of her proudest accomplishments--a Web-based clearinghouse giving officials in multiple agencies and levels of government access to geographic information that can be used for a variety of different purposes.
But the principal impact of more than a decade of leadership in New York State government doesn't derive from any one project. "Her main contribution has been to focus attention on the fact that information technology is a strategic resource for government," says Terry Maxwell, who succeeded Dawes as executive director of the New York State Forum for Information Resource Management, a network of more than 1,200 state technology and policy leaders which spawned the center in 1993.
Today, Dawes' legacy is a culture of collaboration and cooperation within the state's sprawling information management structure, the most recent evidence of which is the consensus-building philosophy of the newly minted Office of Technology. "Her talent," says Ron Cook, director of information service for the New York State Police, "is getting diverse people to see the benefits of working together."
CTG, an IT think tank funded by $750,000 in state funds along with in-kind donations from more than 40 private companies and from the State University of New York at Albany (where the center is housed) is the laboratory where it all happens: a neutral place where officials can try out ideas beyond the pale of public scrutiny without having to follow standard operating procedures; where, in Dawes words " they can plant a seed, and let it flower to fruition into a self-sustaining program." Or fail, learn from mistakes and pass the knowledge gained from the experience to others. It's an approach that has won Dawes' shop wide recognition, including a Ford Foundation Innovations in American Government Award two years ago.
"All our projects start with an intensive phase in which the issues are defined from different vantage points. We look at how various solutions work in an organization, with internal customers, or with the public at large," Dawes explains. "From these viewpoints, different problems taken on different perspectives . We try to understand them all. Then we look for good practices, new technologies, and answers to how the application will work in the real world."
This real-world sensibility is what sets Dawes apart from the technological, bureaucratic and academic mainstream. "You have to figure out what will work. Then ask how a project will work in my organization, with my staff, my customers, my constituents' expectations," she says, articulating a long-held belief that technology is not the be-all and end-all of government services but merely a tool public managers can use to give programs an extra boost. "The most successful technology projects involve people who understand policy goals," Dawes insists. "The combination is very powerful."
— Marilyn J. Cohodas
Photo by Dave Jennings