2010 marks the end of an era for Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna. Appointed the state’s first CIO in 2005, Khanna announced that he would step down on Dec. 15, ending a tenure in which he brought about major technology changes for the government and people of Minnesota. In 2007, he delivered the state’s first Master Plan for Information Technology. Under his leadership, Minnesota created standards for all desktops, servers, storage and cell phones used in state government, which led to $200 million in savings. One thing Khanna is proud of today is his state’s work to use shared services to benefit multiple agencies. In one of his final acts as CIO, Khanna shared some of the wisdom he’s gained as Minnesota’s IT chief. He also offered some insight about what the future may hold and the role IT will play.

What challenges will states face in the coming years, and how will IT help address them?

The grand challenge before us is to find ways to restructure the current government operations model, which is a broken relic of the past. Year after year, states are facing the systemic imbalance of operations cost versus revenue. States are projected to face nearly $300 billion in shortfalls between fiscal 2009 and 2012. It is clear: Business as usual is not an option.

Adding to the fiscal challenges, governments will have to meet citizen demands for openness and provide them with easy access to usable information. When doing this, governments must be vigilant to protect that data from ever-increasing cyber-security threats.

Demographic shifts also pose a major challenge. The manually intensive government workflow struggles to keep up with the 24/7 demands of an increasingly tech-savvy citizenry, and as more workers reach retirement age and the work force shrinks, it will be impossible to meet those demands without a major operational shift.

Economists agree that over the past 40 years, the greatest gains in private-sector productivity and workflow improvement have come through IT innovations, and when factoring in the challenges we face, it is clear that governments must embrace those same innovations moving forward. Information technology can be the building block for more efficient, cost-conscious and open government operations. Leveraging technology to restructure dated, program-centric operations models will result in public-sector productivity improvements and new efficiencies that will help ease the wrenching fiscal choices state governments will face in coming years.

How far has government come in modernizing its operations? How far does it still need to go?

The current government operations model is built on the corporate model of the 1950s and ’60s. That model turned our country into an economic superpower. But since then, government has been slow to adapt and has failed to keep pace with modern innovation. Technology has been used in government for decades and has helped make certain processes better, but it hasn’t been used to transform the operations model like it has in the business community.

We have a long way to go. Change of this magnitude does not happen overnight. It’s a multiyear journey that requires serious commitment from all the players in the broad spectrum of public-sector leadership. It will also require significant infrastructure investments. Just like transportation infrastructure enhancements fueled the rapid growth of the 20th century, we can use IT innovation as a catalyst for the 21st-century economy.

What impact will today’s youth — who grew up in a digital world — have on the way government does business?

Our citizen profile is changing, but unlike the private sector, we are not keeping track of our customers in the digital age we live in. In a bygone era of government, citizens were content to drive to government offices, licensing facilities or post offices to be served. But as Millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers and even retirees conduct more of their everyday business in convenient online settings, they have less tolerance for the in-person, paper-based government operations model.

The radical, technology-enabled transformation that has taken place in the business world — and the way people have embraced service innovations from the likes of Amazon.com, Google and eBay — are further proof that governments must fundamentally rethink, redesign and restructure how they deliver services to citizens. Those who have grown accustomed to 24/7 online access and delivery-to-the-doorstep service in the private sector will no longer be content with the 9-to-5, “across-the-window” service model that has long characterized the public sector.

What is needed for governments to deliver 21st-century service?

A 9-to-5, brick-and-mortar government won’t succeed in a 24/7, digital society. Governments must recognize that the way citizens access services is shifting to an online, self-service delivery model. As with other major innovations like the telephone and electricity, adoption takes time, but eventually it becomes universal. Governments must prepare for all citizens to be accessing services online in the next 10 to 20 years.

To deliver 21st-century service, governments need to shift from a program-centric, vertical view to a citizen-centric view, focusing on how citizens obtain services. To achieve this, governments must eliminate siloed agency processes and shift to a horizontal, cross-jurisdictional operational model based on a foundation of shared services. Centrally managed back-office functions — human resources, administrative services, finances, etc. — will lead to greater collaboration across all levels of government — state, county, city, etc. — and to greater service efficiency.

Building on centrally managed services, the new model requires a shared, harmonized data pool. Governments must look at data holistically with the appropriate level of accessibility and security embedded into it. Rather than raw data, this pool should serve as a reservoir for usable information, available to citizens and government agencies.

Another piece of the puzzle is employees with program-specific expertise. Rather than getting bogged down in the day-to-day operations of government, these experts need to focus on the agency-specific work that needs to be done to meet citizen need. Governments should also empower these experts to improve efficiency and eliminate waste by incorporating practices like Business Process Redesign or Lean initiatives.

The final part of the model is a single government access point for citizens. This is the one-stop shop where citizens can find any information they need, pay a parking ticket, obtain a business license — you name it. It should also serve as a touch point for all services — food stamps, unemployment, health care, etc. — rather than going through individual agencies.

Will citizens have the patience to wait for government to catch up?

Absolutely not. In fact, their dissatisfaction will increase exponentially. Each time citizens have a positive customer service experience in the private sector, it resets their expectations for future service encounters, including those in the public sector.

Catching up requires a multiyear, multiagency, multijurisdictional, collaborative undertaking with careful planning, state leadership and professional management, as well as investment in dollars, time and human resources.

To meet citizens’ needs, governments must also start to view operations through a seamless local-state-federal continuum. When a Katrina-like disaster strikes, citizens expect all government entities to unite and coordinate to solve the problem immediately — not two weeks or two months down the road. When government fails to deliver, they don’t distinguish whether FEMA failed or state or local government failed. In their eyes, all of government failed.

Should IT play a leadership or facilitator role, or both?

It’s both. To fully leverage IT’s possibilities, there must be a paradigm shift where business and technology are viewed as two sides of the same coin.

Public-sector leaders must engage IT professionals and give them the freedom to utilize technology to re-engineer government processes, because governments will continually be required to meet legal service obligations with a diminishing pool of available resources.

Why hasn’t it already happened? What are the realistic chances it will succeed?

We live in a world that operates at the click of a mouse, and citizens’ experiences in the private sector are becoming vastly different from their experience with government. This must change now.

The Founding Fathers intended government to be deliberative and consultative by nature. This is the essence of our democracy and in the public’s best interest, but only the political and policy processes of government should be slow and deliberative. Once the decisions are made, the operations (program execution) should be efficient and effective, with public-sector leaders continually improving processes.

The shift should begin with an honest, apolitical conversation about the broken operational aspects of government, and a shared understanding — given the historic budget problems governments face and future challenges that shifting demographic and economic trends will present — of the urgency for change.

Part of the genius behind this country is our ability to find solutions in the face of daunting problems. We have countless bright minds, thought leaders and a private sector willing to partner with us to make the necessary changes. We also have an engaged citizenry demanding change and hungry to share innovative ideas on how to make government better.

Vision, courage, professional management and the resilience required to shepherd real change are needed now more than ever before. Current problems have presented us with a golden opportunity to fundamentally rethink and redesign government operations and service delivery.

Change is never easy, but as history has shown, small groups of committed, resilient people can begin to budge obstacles once thought immovable.

Chad Vander Veen  |  Associate Editor