Bad Economy, Green IT and Web 2.0 Shape 2008 IT Trends

CIOs grapple with work force turnover, budget prioritization and collaborative applications.

by / December 3, 2008 0

What issues had the biggest influence on government's technology use in 2008? That's a broad question and a tough one to answer. I'll take a crack at it, anyway. The following list is subjective, but it's based on topics that drove our coverage throughout the year, and it's shaped by what we heard from readers at events across the country. These particular issues are significant because each drove multiple IT-related activities this year -- and they'll continue to do so in 2009.

Before we reach the main course, though, I'll add a few caveats. My list could easily include data security and mobile applications. I chose to leave them off. Security is a bottom-line concern that's crucial any year; therefore, it didn't shape 2008 any more than last year. Mobility's growing like wildfire, but it's narrower than the topics below.

So, here are three issues that made the cut:

The Economic Meltdown

Let's take care of the bad news first. Budgets for many states and localities were bad throughout 2008 -- and they were poised to worsen as the year ended. Individual and corporate tax revenues were an early casualty of the slowing U.S. economy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which tracks state budget issues. October's stock market nosedive will push revenue collection lower still, the group said.

"This situation is as bad as I've ever seen it," said NCSL Executive Director Bill Pound, in a mid-October statement. "States have been confronted with bad economic circumstances in the past, but not so many and not all at once. State budgets have a very rough road ahead."

From a technology perspective, the crumbling economy has several implications. With fewer dollars to go around, budget prioritization became a dominant concern. Over the year, we talked to many CIOs who sought to strengthen IT governance, and they were exploring tools like the ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) and portfolio management to do it.

Mounting fiscal pressure also will intensify the consolidation trend that's been under way for the past few years. Nearly anywhere you went in 2008, state and local agencies were merging separate IT systems and staffs to wring every last bit of value from their technology investments. Among the 2008 milestones: Indiana finished a consolidation initiative that pared the number of state data centers from five to one and eliminated multiple communications networks, e-mail systems and help-desk functions. The move saves the state $14 million annually, according to state CIO Gerry Weaver. In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter signed an IT consolidation bill in May to overhaul how that state manages IT. Colorado's 1,200 IT employees now report to the state's central IT office, and CIO Mike Locatis has more authority over project approvals.

Tight budgets influenced application strategies too. More government CIOs acknowledge that they'll likely own less technology as concepts like cloud computing and software as a service mature. Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer (CTO) of Washington, D.C., was a pioneer in this movement, adopting hosted collaboration and project management applications for his organization.

"We decided to go with the cloud model instead of buying a ton of servers that would have taken me six to seven months to procure, configure and deploy. We were able to do that immediately," Kundra told Government Technology earlier this year. "When we look at the platform in terms of collaboration, everything's going to be in the cloud. As we're looking at the whole data center model, the question really becomes, 'Why do we need a data center?'"

CIOs still have concerns about trusting sensitive data and applications to the cloud, but look for more jurisdictions to follow Kundra's lead as hosted services expand and the financial case becomes

ever more compelling.

The Rise of Green IT

Remember the late 1990s? Technology was red-hot, and venture capitalists fell over one another to finance Web-based businesses. Governors and mayors trumpeted high-profile Web sites and e-government initiatives. Of course, if you remember the technology bubble, you also recall the bust in 2001. Some of the business models were half-baked. Others were simply ahead of their time. But my point is that technology was part of the political discussion and national consciousness in a way that it hasn't been since -- until now.

Why? Green IT.

People have talked about green for a few years, but things got serious in 2008. Driven by record-high energy costs and climate change concerns, environmental conservation or sustainability captured the attention of citizens and political leaders. And there's widespread acceptance that technology is at the core of solving many environmental challenges -- whether it's cutting carbon by enabling employees to work from home, improving the energy efficiency of buildings and computing equipment, or developing alternative fuel sources.

Growing attention on going green has many IT implications. One of the biggest for state and local agencies is huge interest in remote work. Virginia was a pioneer, with Gov. Tim Kaine issuing a 2006 executive order calling for 20 percent of eligible state workers to telework by 2010. By summer 2008, more than 22 percent of eligible employees were teleworking, exceeding the governor's goal almost two years early.

Virginia certainly isn't alone on this issue. States and localities nationwide grappled with the right way to implement remote work policies and procedures. And CIOs worried about how to support this new breed of worker. Among their concerns: Are critical systems accessible remotely? Will data remain secure? Can remote employees use home computers for work? Meanwhile, managers and policymakers had their own questions: Which job classifications were eligible for remote work? Can workers be trusted to do their jobs when no one is watching? Will taxpayers believe remote workers really are working when they're at home?

Sometimes these questions produced gridlock -- but not always. The CIO of one Washington state agency recently sent 25 help-desk staffers home to test how well they could work remotely. The pilot was designed to identify technology challenges -- workers were equipped with a virtual private network, video conferencing and instant messaging capabilities -- and management issues associated with telework.

Green concerns -- often along with cost cutting -- also are behind a nascent move to close government offices an extra day a week to reduce energy consumption. Underpinning these initiatives is the fact that e-government services are mature enough that transactions with citizens and businesses can continue when physical facilities are closed.

Utah made the first move, with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announcing in July a plan called Working 4 Utah, which extended government office hours Monday through Thursday, and closed many of them on Fridays. Four-day workweek pilots also are under way in Hawaii's departments of Health and Human Resources Development -- and the idea is being considered by Leon County, Fla.

Huntsman acknowledged the importance of e-government in an announcement marking Utah's No. 1 ranking in the 2008 Digital States Survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government.

"This top ranking is a reflection of our state's innovative and talented leadership that continues to bring Utah to the forefront of providing greater accessibility to government services through technology," Huntsman said. "The unprecedented 'Working 4 Utah' initiative ensures greater accessibility to state government before and after the normal workday hours, and provides an increased awareness of the more than 800 government services online."

Thanks to green, e-government is cool again.

Web 2.0 and Millennials

Almost anytime two or more government

officials gathered this year, a discussion about Web 2.0 or Millennials broke out. The issue hits state and local CIOs from different directions. Internally they must attract young workers to government employment, and the consensus is that revisiting work rules and adopting new collaborative Web technologies are part of the answer. Externally they need to interact with a generation of citizens addicted to social media and for whom e-mailing is old-fashioned.

With thousands of aging public-sector employees set to retire in the next five years, managers are keenly aware of the need to attract younger workers to government service. Some experts believe 20-somethings now entering the work force are more inclined toward public service than their parents. Though most agencies can't match private-sector pay, job stability and government retirement and health benefits also could prove attractive to these workers. On the other hand, Millennials want flexible hours and advanced technology from employers. Government will compete for the best of these workers with firms like Google, where instant messages outnumber phone calls and employees choose between PCs and Macs for their desktops.

Telecommuting and four-day workweek initiatives will help address the flexibility issue. But government IT officials admit they have plenty of work to do on creating a Millennial-friendly job environment. One hurdle is the tension between traditional public workplace rules and collaborative Web 2.0 technologies that tend to blur the line between work and pleasure. Walk into many private-sector offices today and you'll see young workers with multiple applications open on their desktops -- chat windows, Facebook pages, video screens, etc. -- some work-related, others, maybe not. Allowing widespread adoption of these tools may be a tough transition for public agencies -- and taxpayers -- accustomed to strict separation of work and leisure. Yet, figuring out a practical way to accommodate some of this activity could improve collaboration within and among agencies -- and it'll likely happen anyway, with or without official approval.

David Gardam, CIO of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, said agencies must find ways to let young workers use Web 2.0 applications. "Technology isn't a novelty for these workers; it's a basic," said Gardam, speaking in September at Government Technology's GTC-East conference in Albany, N.Y. "We need to adopt these technologies, or our younger workers will use them around us." Agencies in New York and elsewhere are modifying rules to allow greater use of social networking tools by state employees. Look for more of that to happen in the future.

CIOs also spent time determining how Web 2.0 tools could be broadly used to interact with citizens and businesses. For instance, YouTube became a fairly common outlet for government information. California's Department of Motor Vehicles offered drivers' test demonstrations, and Washington, D.C., posted video of procurement conferences in an effort to boost competition for government projects.

Seemingly frivolous sites like Facebook and Twitter are following suit. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen maintains a Facebook page to reach young voters. And public safety agencies, such as the Scottsdale, Ariz., Police and Los Angeles Fire Department, began using Twitter to distribute alerts and other data to citizens.

Agencies didn't completely resolve how to use Web 2.0 tools in government this year. But they spent a lot of time trying, and society ultimately will be better off thanks to those efforts.