technology to see the dramatic improvements promised by their benchmark studies. States will have more efficiently run back offices by making those investments, but as a result, they'll often be spending more overall, mostly due to upfront technology upgrade costs, according to Partridge. He recommended that all states do a benchmark study, but they must realize that initially, many will only be able to implement the changes that require a reprioritization of existing funds and resources -- not the ones that require extra money. Large technology investments might have to wait until legislators are willing to pay for them.

"Lawmakers don't get elected on a new accounting system," Partridge said, adding that his rapidly growing state needs to make those expensive changes in technology and business practices, but he will be patient with legislators.

"They have difficult decisions to make," Partridge said, noting that Arizona is growing so fast that neighborhoods are popping up in areas with no schools.

"Benchmarking has the opportunity to lay good information at the doorstep of the policy decision-makers, and over time -- as the resources become available and they try to manage the growth -- we can incorporate those concepts."

Changes in the Wind

The approaching exodus of retirement-age baby boomers from state government is providing a window to automate clerk-level jobs, according to Bill Kilmartin, director of the finance and administration industry for state and local government at Accenture, and former comptroller of Massachusetts.

"What I observe is an evolutionary change in the composition of the state work force -- it's gradually shifting from a lower-paid clerical focus to more of a higher-paid knowledge worker focus," Kilmartin said.

Florida's Darling explains some of the changes that automated technology will make to back-office procurement processes.

"If you were sitting in front of your PC and you were an authorized purchaser for supplies, you would make the decision to buy office supplies at your PC, and the automated system running behind the scenes would capture the accounting information," Darling said. "It would set up the purchase order -- it would reserve the funds all with you typing in, 'I want to buy a dozen pencils.' The purchasing agent wouldn't have to go out and find a supplier. The accounting clerk wouldn't have to go out and say '[The purchaser] ordered a dozen pencils, so we're going to have to charge that to here.'"

Sylvis described some of the busywork Tennessee HR employees endure with their antiquated legacy equipment, some of which was more than 30 years old. They are required to manually process every garnishment on a paycheck.

"You have to make sure you reduce the amount of pay for that particular individual by the court-ordered amount," Sylvis said. "Then you have to go into our accounting system and prepare the entry to make the payment to the courts on behalf of that person. All the child support that goes on with our employees -- all of the liens out there are handled that way."

That process and others like it will be automated as technology overtakes the back office. The evaporation of such "scut work" would free up budget space to hire more employees for analytical, knowledge work, according to Kilmartin, who pointed to his 10 years as comptroller of Massachusetts as an example.

"We started off with a work force that was heavily clerical," Kilmartin said. "Over the course of time, we professionalized the work force so it became less clerical, and we brought in more technology, and at the end of [my final term], we had [nearly] the same number of employees, but they were doing three times the amount of work."

As the rash of retirements makes room for those positions, government's

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.