High Tech in the Heartland

Although Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman has been in office for a little more than a year, he has already fashioned a well developed IT strategy for the state.

by / February 1, 2006
Unlike most state capitol buildings with their usual domes, Nebraska's center of government is a spire.

Built in 1932 with massive limestone blocks and rising more than 400 feet into the sky, the structure stands in defiance of the flat prairie landscape surrounding it. Built over 10 years, from 1922 to 1932, the Nebraska Capitol blends a range of architectural elements and themes, including Greek, Egyptian, Byzantine and Art Deco.

The American Institute of Architects declared it the fourth-ranking modern architectural wonder of the world.

The same optimism that led Nebraskans to build such a singular Capitol nearly 75 years ago still permeates state government today in the Cornhusker State. Despite having a static population that is only growing older and a farm-based economy that continues to shrink, Nebraska plans to grow with the 21st century, proclaimed Gov. Dave Heineman, and IT will be the catalyst.

"We have to grow our state. We do a great job of educating our children from kindergarten through the university level and then we export our kids to other states," he observed. "Our challenge is to create more good, high-paying jobs in Nebraska, to create more knowledge workers in our state, to reflect where the 21st century is headed."

Heineman took over as governor in January 2005, after his predecessor, Gov. Mike Johanns, resigned to become U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Though Heineman just started as Nebraska's chief executive, he is no stranger to government or leadership. As lieutenant governor, he served as Nebraska's director of homeland security and as chairman of the Nebraska Information Technology Commission (NITC).

In his first statewide post as treasurer from 1994 to 1998, Heineman increased Nebraska's electronic commerce transactions from $58 million to nearly $1 billion.

As governor for a little more than one year, he has set an IT strategy in motion that supports his four priorities: education, economic development, efficiency in government and safe communities.

In mid-December 2005, Gov. Heineman met with Government Technology magazine at the Capitol in Lincoln to discuss his strategies and policies for technology in government, and his vision for its role in Nebraska's future.

Merging Policy and Operations
The governor's strategy starts with his CIO, Brenda Decker, who Heineman appointed in January 2005. His first move was to unify Decker's office with various IT and telecom operational groups scattered throughout state government. Previously the NITC and the state CIO set IT policy, while operations were under the Department of Administrative Services' control.

"I've brought Brenda's position as CIO into both a policy and operation mode," he said. "Far too often they are separated."

Having unity at the top is essential, Heineman stressed, because state government has many diverse responsibilities, such as collecting taxes, building roads, fighting crime and educating children. "The question is: How do you relate all those responsibilities in an integrated, unified structure?" he said.

Since amalgamating the state's IT policies and operations, Heineman pushed hard to reduce duplication of technology services, programs and projects. The most notable result is the centralization of purchasing agreements, especially for software licenses; and creative deals with vendors, such as an all-purpose contract for the state's numerous, multi-function printers that covers paper, toner and maintenance, saving the state a considerable amount of money in a short time period.

On a much larger scale, Heineman directed Decker to find ways the state can wring more efficiency through better centralization and use of IT.

"In Nebraska, we have our own digital divide within government," said Decker. "We have large agencies with access to federal funds, large IT systems and large IT staff. They can do the stuff that other, smaller agencies can't."

Decker has tried to find similarities among the departments and urge the concept of shared services where it makes the most sense. For instance, the state now uses just one e-mail system, and deployed a network backbone called Network Nebraska, which serves government, higher-education institutions and 180 public schools scattered across Nebraska's more than 77,000 square miles.

Without relying on new appropriations to fund the project, Network Nebraska has lowered the state's public-sector networking costs by nearly 20 percent.

State, Collegiate Collaboration
Collaboration is especially important to Heineman in his quest for greater efficiency and less duplication of effort. As lieutenant governor, he strengthened the relationship between the state and its university system.

"We've done a much better job of bringing together the University of Nebraska and state government in a way that allows us to combine demand and drive down costs for a range of needs."

As governor, Heineman hopes to move more aggressively in developing ways for the state and the university to share IT resources more efficiently and productively.

Another part of the governor's IT strategy is improving the delivery of taxpayer services. "We need to focus on delivering services the taxpayers want, not the ones we think they need. It makes no sense to offer them something if they don't use it."

Heineman cited the superfluity of individual department Web pages as an example of government overkill. "Not every agency interacts with the public, making it unnecessary that they all have their own Web site."

He also noted that though taxpayers want government information, they don't really care where it comes from -- getting information quickly and easily is their main concern.

"Many times, the information they seek exists in two to four departments. We need to design Web sites so taxpayers can find all their information in one place, and quickly. Nobody wants to go through four different screens to find what they are looking for."

To that end, the state completely overhauled its homepage in 2005, making it easier for taxpayers to find information and do business with the government. Hundreds of services once available only on paper or in person are now online, and that includes local and state government services.

Heineman referred to the portal as Nebraska's "front porch to the rest of the world," emphasizing that it's not only more accessible than before, but it's also more inviting.

Economic Development and the Future
In December 2005, Japan lifted its ban on American beef following the mad cow disease outbreak in the United States in 2003, which had a significant impact on Nebraska's agricultural economy. In lieu of the ban, some restrictions applied, but it was front-page news in the state. Gov. Heineman even pitched in -- helping to load the first boxes of prime Nebraska beef bound for Japan.

Despite the upbeat news, Nebraska's growth in the 21st century won't be based on agriculture, as it was during most of the 20th century. Heineman recognizes that the new economy is about information, not farming. That's why he wants to utilize the state's collaborative relationship between the government and university system to lead Nebraska in the field of electronic health records.

"We want to be a leader in the whole arena of electronic medical records," said Heineman. "I've sat on a number of task forces looking at how we can integrate hospitals, physicians and the medical community into a system where you have access to your medical history wherever you are.

"If you are in California or Michigan, the issue is too big to be taken on at one time. But we think our state, with its two leading medical centers and its hospitals, is small enough where we all know each other and can work together to rise to the forefront of the issue."

After years of experience working with technology and government, Heineman knows that IT and business needs aren't always on the same page. Whether it's integrating information for better taxpayer services, centralizing IT contracts to eliminate costly duplication or collaborating with the state's academic center on mutual needs, Heineman knows that failure can be easily attributed to a lack of leadership.

"Top-level leadership is absolutely essential if you are going to get the job done. Whether you are the CEO of a company or governor, you have to be involved," he said. "It doesn't mean you have to be an expert on every single issue in technology, but you have to care about it, be passionate about [it], and be willing to provide the leadership to move your state forward."
Tod Newcombe Contributing Editor