When Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was re-elected in November 2002, he said his second term would focus on economic development, education and health care. Technology was not on his list of priorities. As if to confirm that shift in priorities, he promptly fired CIO Richard Varn and five other top administrators.

Iowa and 37 other states face significant budget shortfalls. In fact, the fiscal situation went from bad to worse during the latter stages of 2002, forcing the National Governors Association (NGA) to announce that states face their most dire budget problems since World War II, just as 23 new governors get ready to take office.

The combination of a fiscal freefall for state budgets and the arrival of new administrations with new agendas has thrown the IT policies of some states into sharp relief. Around the country, technology's value and return on investment are questioned. In other states, attempts to centralize and consolidate systems have run into problems as agencies dig in their heels and resist efforts to give up control.

"It's very difficult to promote change in any circumstance in government," said John Kelly, Intel's manager of public affairs for Arizona and former director of the state's Government Information Technology Agency (GITA). "It's particularly hard when your hands are tied on the fiscal side."

Public Schizophrenia

At first glance, politics and elections appear to have had little impact on state IT policies. Few election battles during the fall 2002 campaigns made IT or e-government an issue. That's partly because the public didn't see technology as a campaign concern, so candidates steered away from the subject, said Jerry Mechling, a lecturer on public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"There's not a sense that the public is demanding they [politicians] pay attention, and will reward them if they do a great job or punish them if they don't," he said.

But politics is never quite that simple.

"There's a certain schizophrenia going on here," Mechling added. Though the public might not be stating explicitly they want more technology, they demand the kind of convenience, efficiency and protection from a turbulent world that political leaders must address with technology.

"Almost any of the issues people are talking about -- jobs, economic development -- can't be delivered without an e-government agenda," Mechling said.

In a few instances, IT did become a lightning rod. The gubernatorial battle in Arkansas was fierce; challenger Jimmie Lou Fisher charged that incumbent Gov. Mike Huckabee sacrificed the quality of state education in favor of an ERP system that cost $56 million to build. Despite the challenger's attack on the governor's IT agenda, Huckabee prevailed, winning the election.

The outcome was different in Wisconsin, where conservative challenger Jim Doyle upset incumbent Scott McCallum for the state's top job. Doyle challenged McCallum's record on a number of fronts, including his creation of a new agency, the Department of E-Government, which he called a colossal mistake.

"Doyle took issue with the creation of a new agency at a time when the state was suffering from large budget deficits," said Thad Nation, a spokesman for the governor-elect. Specifically, Doyle questioned McCallum's claim of cost savings from e-government when much of the savings could be attributed to work done prior to the department's formation.

The end result is the political and strategic demotion of e-government and IT in Wisconsin; in fact, Nation said he expects the new governor to eliminate the position of CIO and fold the e-government agency into the Department of Administration.

The experience of Wisconsin, and to a lesser degree Arkansas, appears to be an exception. Thom Rubel, NGA's program director for state information technology, said IT never really became a political issue during the gubernatorial campaigns. He

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor