Editors note: This is the second in a series of articles exploring IT initiatives in a handful of progressive southern states. This month, Government Technology takes an in-depth look at Virginias effort to position itself as a leader in the Internet economy.

In February, West Point, Va., Town Councilman Olen Sikes approached Virginia Secretary of Technology Donald Upson for advice on linking his tiny community to the Web. By the end of the conversation, Sikes had planted the seeds for one of the commonwealths most innovative technology endeavors.

The chance encounter, during a technology conference in Richmond, quickly blossomed into Virginias e-Communities initiative, an ambitious plan to create blueprints to help local jurisdictions become players in the emerging Internet economy.

"Through the course of the conversation, [Sikes] and I discussed the concept that there are probably a lot of communities like West Point," recalled Upson. "We said, Why dont we try to put together a task force? Lets see if we can come up with a solution for all of them."

Within months, Virginia had assembled a group of local government officials, private industry representatives and educators to tackle the issue. Dubbed the e-Communities Task Force, the organization will produce a series of e-government blueprints by mid-2001 designed to help small jurisdictions put a wide range of civic and business activities online.

"My dream is to get every home in West Point connected to high-speed Internet and cable television," said Sikes, a councilman for the 3,000-person community perched on the banks of the York River in east-central Virginia. "I told [Upson] about it, and then we just sort of went on from there."

The grassroots origin of the e-Communities program and the swiftness with which the initiative came together offers evidence that the several years spent retooling Virginias state government to meet the realities of the Digital Age are bearing fruit.

Since his appointment as secretary of technology in 1998, Upson has labored to implement the vision of Republican Gov. James Gilmore, one of the nations most tech-savvy governors. Fundamentally, the state intends to use technology to break down bureaucracy and move government closer to the people. According to Upson, among the challenges in reaching that goal is keeping traditional government thinking from strangling Web innovation.

"If you really believe in our government, you have to believe that citizens have some pretty good ideas, and [Sikes] did," said Upson. "The greatest opportunity that technology offers us is it returns power to the individual if we embrace it instead of trying to regulate it and legislate it to death."

Betting on the Web

Like other IT leaders in the South, Virginia decided early to make technology a central component of its economy. And perhaps no state in the nation has taken a broader approach to embracing opportunities presented by the Web.

Besides creating Upsons secretary of technology position -- a post charged with overseeing statewide IT issues and encouraging growth of e-government and e-business -- Gilmore established the Commission on Information Technology, a high-level advisory body on Internet and e-commerce issues made up of business, technology and government leaders.

In 1999, state lawmakers enacted the Virginia Internet Policy Act to address emerging issues like e-mail spam, privacy and electronic distribution of information requested under the states Freedom of Information Act. Gilmore followed up that legislation with a pair of executive orders directing executive branch agencies and higher education institutions to expand the delivery of services through the Web.

This year, Virginia became one of just a handful of states to adopt the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act, which erects a framework for Internet commerce. In addition, Gilmore unveiled an ambitious plan, dubbed the Digital Dominion, meant to solidify Virginias position as an Internet

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology,Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.