Though its relatively small population could relegate it to a minor player in the world of government IT, the state of Montana is leading several innovative interstate IT projects, causing other states to take notice.
As a smaller government with less red tape binding officials to traditional practices, Montana, geographically large with a population of less than 1 million, is showing that governments of any size are capable of truly innovative thinking. Governments have sought ways to make the most of their dwindling budgets for many years, but even the best-intentioned aspirations to be innovative are sometimes blocked by politics and bureaucracy.
Three large multi-state projects now under way are demonstrating Montana's leadership in interstate collaboration. Department of revenue offices in Montana and Idaho formed an agreement that could become the basis for a broader technology sharing program. A collaborative disaster recovery plan between the technology offices of Montana and Oregon could also develop into a larger technology sharing program, according to officials. And department of labor offices in Montana, Nevada, Michigan and Arkansas are now working together to grow a shared Web hosting solution that has drawn the attention of a number of other states too. Officials involved in all three of these projects suggested that what has been established so far is simple, but necessary groundwork for wider-reaching interstate technology sharing endeavors in the future.
The Montana Department of Revenue and the Idaho Tax Commission formed a mutual aid disaster agreement in December 2012 intended to ensure continuity of operations in the event of a natural disaster or some other debilitating event. If either office's ability to process tax payments is interrupted, the state facing a disaster would need only to send two management personnel to the other state to oversee continued tax payment processing. The other state agrees to supply workers and office space to continue operations.
It's a simple agreement that costs nothing, explained Montana Department of Revenue Director Dan Bucks. But forging this agreement set the foundation for something larger. “We've established a little constitution of mutual aid and we can add on modules in the future,” he said.
It's one thing to set up an emergency plan, Bucks said, but if a disaster does happen, there will be no convenient way to keep an inventory of the tax records that have been entered. Because the two offices use the same technology vendor, it would be relatively simple to create a “light” version of each state's computer system in the other state, Bucks said. “Conceivably you could do a lot of operations in the other person's location in the event of a disaster,” he said.
According to Bucks, setting up the agreement was very easy for Montana, despite the fact that this is the first agreement of its kind in the country. This agreement was made possible through trust and strong, long-term relationships with Idaho, he said. “Yes, there are barriers to collaboration, but some level of collaboration almost always occurs,” he said. “Look to the people you normally work with and look to the components where the greatest elements of mutual trust and commonality in administrative and technological processes are. Where is the fit? And go from there.”
An agreement between the technology offices of Montana and Oregon set up offsite storage for disaster recovery in both states. A 10 Gbps link was established between the data center in Helena, Mont., and the data center in Salem, Ore. The system, running since last December, allows each state to lease server space from the other state and accommodates a need for emergency backup that a large vendor could not fill, said Montana Chief Technology Officer Stuart Fuller.
“Other states have been doing this a long time for snowplows and transfer of prisoners, but for IT services, this is kind of new,” Fuller said. The technical aspects of setting up the arrangement were relatively simple, he said, but politically and legally there were a lot of angles to consider. Now that an agreement is in place, officials from both states have said that future ideas for technology sharing will be easier to implement.
Opportunities for additional collaborative technology projects could include sharing of mainframe disaster recovery, storage and tape space and server services. Governments have long been aware of the benefits to be gained from economy of scale, Fuller explained, but not many IT departments look to outside public agencies to get those savings because IT workers are sometimes worried about losing control of their projects, he said.
That's why it was a little unusual for Montana to begin serving as Web host for other states' department of labor websites when the vendor disappeared. “The concept of sharing is one of those things,” Fuller said. “People don't immediately think about it.”
About two years ago, the labor departments for Nevada, Arkansas and Michigan began allowing Montana to host what was then known as their Workforce Informer websites. What began as a simple agreement that would allow the states to continue operating their websites at a reduced cost turned into a project now known as LMInformer. “By the end of September of this year, we'll have completed the project,” said Annette Miller, information resource supervisor for the research and analysis bureau at the Montana Department of Labor and project manager for LMInformer.
LMInformer aims to offer not only a Web hosting solution for the states involved, but also allow each state a customizable website interface with the potential for more customization in the future. Using the vendor, which essentially has a monopoly on the market, Miller said, is far more expensive than Montana's option and the vendor didn't offer any customization options.
“They don't take that money that we give them to do R&D and to improve. So we want to be able to take advantage of the latest technology and not wait for a vendor to do it,” she said. In addition to the existing consortium members, about six other states have expressed interest in joining.
For years, Montana has been a prime example of a government that effectively collaborates to maximize its resources. In 2011, Montana partnered with Oregon, Utah and Colorado to share GIS data in the cloud.
Being geographically large but financially small led the state into a collaborative mindset years before other governments were ready to seriously consider the benefits of pooling resources. Dick Clark, Montana's recently retired CIO, said that for the past several years, collaboration was a priority. “I pushed for it and I pushed hard,” he said. “Five years ago we were in pretty dire shape and everyone else was pretty flush. Then came the downturn in the economy and everyone realized they couldn't afford their IT either.”
“The private sector looks at partnerships as 'you pay me the money and I'll do the work for you,'” Clark said. But when states with shared interests work together, he said, the partnership is stronger and mutually beneficial.
Regardless of whether the cloud becomes the panacea that everyone now thinks it is, Clark predicted, horizontal collaboration in the public sector is an option that all government bodies should consider when planning any IT project.