BY STEVE TOWNS, FEATURES EDITOR
North Carolinas IT explosion rests on a solid foundation.
Southern states have begun using information technology to both transform government operations and revitalize rural economies. Like their counterparts throughout the nation, southern political leaders and IT officials are scrambling to roll out online services for citizens and businesses. In progressive states, this pressure has sparked rampant IT progress as jurisdictions implement technology they view as vital to future political and economic success.
But the South faces unique barriers to equitably delivering online services and other Internet-age opportunities to rural communities. Therefore, IT initiatives often include strong digital divide and economic development components.
"The more successful states in the South are now looking at where their growth has occurred and where it hasnt occurred," said Jim Clinton, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board. "Theyre seeing a real clustering of success around what are becoming cyber-cities. The rural communities, in many cases, have not made progress at the same level."
In other words, while Atlanta and North Carolinas Research Triangle Park attract IT investments and talent rivaling traditional technology strongholds, such as Californias Silicon Valley, other Southern communities are not so fortunate. Indeed, the poorest rural communities havent reached the Industrial Age, much less the Digital Age.
This series of profiles, which begins with an in-depth look at North Carolina, explores efforts in a handful of leading Southern states to tackle these challenges and position themselves for success in the emerging Internet economy.
It took North Carolina just 45 days to build a portal that raises the bar for government-run Web sites -- ample evidence that the states commitment to rapid, strategic technology deployment has begun to pay off.
Teaming with Andersen Consulting and portal pioneer Yahoo, North Carolina hammered traditional government Web content into user-friendly packages designed for citizens, businesses and state employees. Dubbed NC @ Your Service, the site stirs in extras like stock quotes, sports scores and weather reports, blurring the line between private- and
public-sector Web offerings. In true portal fashion, users also may personalize their opening page and choose the topics they wish to track.
But the gleaming new site is just the most visible product among a flurry of technology activity under way in North Carolina.
"North Carolinas economy is in the midst of a historic transformation," said Gov. James Hunt, who has spearheaded the states IT efforts. "In recent years, weve gone from a largely rural economic engine driven by agriculture and manufacturing to a 21st-century model of high technology. And were going to do everything we can to increase the role of science and technology in our economy to continue our growth and improve our quality of life."
That commitment was evident throughout the first half of 2000 as the state set a frantic pace for unveiling technology plans and projects.
In February, North Carolina received recommendations for closing the digital divide from a high-profile Rural Prosperity Task Force chaired by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Those recommendations led to an agreement with the states three major telecommunications companies to bring high-speed Internet access to all areas of North Carolina by 2003.
In April, the states Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) released a comprehensive plan for implementing electronic government, reforming IT asset management, streamlining IT procurement, improving financial reporting for IT investments and creating an enterprise-wide security strategy.
In June, the state unveiled a 30-year technology blueprint that recommends creating tax credits to support technology research and development, endorses regional technology-based economic development programs and urges North Carolina to brand itself globally as a high-tech state.
In September, the state repositioned ITS as a cabinet-level agency, with newly appointed CIO Ron Hawley reporting directly to the governor.
"Im not sure theres any other state in the country right now thats doing more than we are in IT-related work," said Commerce Secretary Rick Carlisle. "I think theres a real window of opportunity here. There are a lot of major investments being made by companies in Internet-related technologies, and a lot of new companies starting up. So states that capture that will continue to see growth. If you dont capture that, you can be left behind."
Picking Up the Pace
The NC @ Your Service portal forms the cornerstone of an aggressive attempt by North Carolina leaders to put their state at the forefront of the emerging Internet economy. The sites first online citizen services -- auto registration renewals and an electronic store selling
state fair tickets -- appeared in September, and state officials intend to add more at a near-daily clip.
For instance, the state will gradually expand the online store to include sales of tickets for all state-run attractions, as well as merchandise from public facilities like zoos and museums. Officials are studying options for moving all procurement online and integrating local government information and services onto the portal. Also under way are projects creating statewide platforms for electronic forms processing, surplus property auctions and digital signatures.
Ultimately, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall expects the portal to perform several key functions.
"Its a way we can serve citizens on their time frame. Theres a reason why Wal-Mart is open 24 hours a day -- people shop 24 hours a day. People will use government 24 hours a day if we make it available to them," she said. "Also, we have a growing high-tech industry in North Carolina, and if we as a government dont lead by showing that we are interested in this kind of thing, how can we get venture capitalists to look at North Carolina? How can we get companies to locate here? How can we get universities to emphasize the curriculum that will turn out
the workers needed for high-tech industries?"
In fact, Carlisle said an effective Web presence has become essential for attracting attention from professional site consultants that advise companies on where to locate facilities. "Theyll use Web-based systems for initial searches, so depending on the quality of information that
you have online, you can be included or screened out early in the site location process," he said. "If you dont do a good job of getting information to them, its going to hurt industry recruitment efforts."
Heeding that advice, Carlisles Department of Commerce created an application called North Carolina SiteSearch that allows Web users to view specifications and pictures of all available industrial buildings and building sites within the state. The agency collected a NASIRE award in September for the initial application, and within months it
plans to add the ability to deliver custom online portfolios that give companies quick information on taxes, infrastructure and other issues associated with relocating to the state.
North Carolina hopes to spur this type of innovation through a newly created E-grant program that will pump $4 million into agency e-government projects this year. Thirty-seven agencies -- including the Department of Commerce -- had submitted grant proposals worth $13 million by the programs Aug. 31 application deadline. The state was scheduled to choose funding recipients in September.
"Were looking at this as a way to jump-start our e-government efforts," said Sharon Hayes, head of the NC @ Your Service Project Team, a new organization within ITS which runs the grant program and oversees the portal. "Were looking for things that truly transform the
way you interact with government."
Accommodating the demands of e-government -- which puts a premium on inter-agency cooperation and dictates that new applications be completed in a matter of days rather than months -- has triggered several changes at ITS, which serves as a technology consultant and systems integrator for state agencies. Creating Hayes Project Office to maintain the portal and guide statewide common service initiatives, such as PKI and electronic forms processing, is part of the evolution. But the most significant development involved shifting ITS out of the Commerce Department and giving it cabinet-level status.
Hawley, who replaced long-time CIO Rick Webb in August, expects gaining a seat on the governors cabinet to foster tighter integration between technology and state agency business functions. "[It] lets us understand what agencies are trying to accomplish," he said. "And we can better explain to them how technology may be deployed to meet those needs."
A higher profile for ITS should also help the organization promote a set of technology standards that reach across multiple state agencies, said Carlisle. "For [e-government] to work the way we intend it to, we really cant operate out of silos, with each organization coming up with an independent solution. Its got to be enterprise-wide
Likewise, e-government is knocking down organizational barriers within ITS itself. "Historically, our shop ran as a stovepipe organization. You had a telecommunications group, you had a mainframe computer services group and you had an applications development group," said Hawley. "What weve grown to realize is these projects need to be much more fluid, and we have to come together as project teams that cut horizontally across all of those groups."
ITS addressed that need by creating the Enterprise Program Management Office (EPMO) to pull together staff resources needed for IT projects regardless of where they exist within the organization. These teams assemble for a particular project and disband when the work is completed.
Besides rounding-up internal staff expertise, EPMO helps coordinate multi-agency projects, which Hawley expects to become more common as organizations throughout the state scramble to put services online. "Youve had agencies come together for a specific solution in the past, but theres very much a new entrepreneurial spirit of partnering now,"
North Carolinas new online auto registration system offers a glimpse of what may become a common approach to IT projects as e-government takes hold. The project involved a three-way collaboration between ITS, the state Controllers Office and the Division of Motor Vehicles. While a team of DMV employees and consultants handled the actual registration application, ITS staff helped link the application to the portal, according to Hawley. The Controllers Office, which awarded a contract in July that gave state agencies the ability to accept credit cards, was responsible for the electronic payment portion of the service.
"The job is figuring the pieces of the puzzle that need to come together to make the clear picture," said Hawley.
Concurrent with the arrival of online services has been a growing effort within the state to ensure all citizens gain access to the Internet and the opportunities it promises. North Carolina is determined to close the economic gap between its rural and urban communities, according to the governor. "We know that we risk leaving our rural areas behind ... if we dont take active steps to level the playing field," said Hunt.
Like several southern states, North Carolina essentially has two economies. One is typified by Research Triangle Park, an area bounded by the states three major universities that boasts a red-hot technology job market, a pool of highly trained workers, ready access to venture capital and a well-developed IT infrastructure. But the states other economy includes some of the nations poorest regions -- areas like Appalachia that depend on tired agricultural and manufacturing industries, such as tobacco farming and furniture-making.
"Weve had an economy thats based on lower-wage and lower-skilled labor in rural areas," said Billy Ray Hall, head of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center. When you look at the New Economy, with global competition and the restructuring thats going on in manufacturing, agriculture and services, the rural areas of North Carolina are not blessed with the human capital or the infrastructure to participate."
Earlier this year, Hunt received recommendations from the states Rural Prosperity Task Force, a 25-member group appointed in 1999 to find ways of bringing rural communities up to par with economically successful urban areas. In August, the governor signed legislation creating the North Carolina Rural Internet Access Authority, an organization within the Department of Commerce charged with carrying out many of the task force recommendations.
Among the Access Authoritys first priorities is managing an agreement between state officials and North Carolinas largest telecommunications providers that will bring dial-up Internet connections to rural communities within one year and affordable high-speed connections to those areas within three years. The authority also will open two model
telework centers in depressed areas over the next two years and promote computer ownership and Internet access subscriptions throughout the state.
In a fortunate turn of events, the organization will have a pot of $30 million -- a windfall generated by the Micro-Electronic Center of North Carolina, one of the states early forays into computer technology -- to invest in these and other rural economic development projects.
"There was some degree of luck involved. No one knew when we finished the task force report that we were going to get $30 million," said Tom Runkle, chief planning officer of ITS. "But were obviously ready to spend it much better than we would have been otherwise. You wouldnt believe the person-hours we put into the Rural Prosperity Task Force."
In fact, careful planning underlies much of North Carolinas current success. Although the state appears to be spinning out technology initiatives at a break-neck pace, the whirlwind of activity stems from a deliberate, farsighted approach to e-commerce and e-government, said
Clinton, executive director of the southern Growth Policies Board, a group dedicated to fostering economic development in the South.
"States that win in building economies understand that this is a long-term affair," said Clinton. "Victories that have been scored in the states we talk about -- certainly in North Carolina -- are a product of constant attention to the future."
For instance, North Carolinas statewide approach to IT initiatives traces back to the mid-1990s with the creation of the Information Resources Management Council (IRMC), a 21-member group comprising major agency secretaries, elected officials, education leaders and state and local government representatives. The organizations monthly meetings promote technology sharing among state agencies, expose agency heads to technical issues and reinforce the notion that IT must be viewed from a statewide perspective, according to Secretary of State Marshall, who chairs the IRMCs e-commerce workgroup.
"I think the best benefit of IRMC is that agency heads have the position there, and we try to make sure that they attend, rather than sending designees," Marshall said. "Weve got very few other bodies to hammer out these kinds of decisions. They drill down into some exacting kinds of things, and you generally dont have your agency heads doing that kind of stuff."
Similarly, state leaders have spent several years refining North Carolinas technical architecture, which spells out the states standards for implementing new technology and connecting modern equipment to legacy systems.
The focus on long-term planning continued this year with the release of Vision 2030, a document prepared by the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology, which urges leaders to prepare for the 21st -century economy by investing in the states science and technology infrastructure. Among the reports recommendations:
Provide tax incentives to encourage private-sector participation in research, teacher training and K-16 curriculum development.
Promote growth of specialized networking academies run by technology firms such as Cisco, Nortel, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle.
Create a university-based, non-profit organization to compile, analyze and distribute via the Internet all available data on the technology and knowledge sectors of North Carolinas economy. The data would be used to guide state technology policy.
Increase the states current research and development tax credit from five percent to at least 10 percent and broaden the pool of eligible companies.
Along with the Vision 2030 report, ITS unveiled a 32-page document mapping out strategic technology initiatives to implement e-government and improve the quality of North Carolinas technology investments. The document formalizes ITS intention to take a business-like approach to IT assets through techniques like best-value procurement and life-cycle management of IT equipment.
Hawley credits thoughtful planning such as this -- along with timely legislation authorizing electronic payments and the use of digital signatures -- with paving the way for dramatic IT progress within the state this year. Moreover, he expects innovation to continue well into the future.
"Weve been working hard on building the foundation to put us where we are today," said Hawley. "Now were ready. Were in a position to do a lot of things -- its unprecedented."