When Gov. Gray Davis unveiled Californias Web portal in January, the event marked a turning point in the states approach to information technology. Release of the gleaming new portal
capped several years of behind-the-scenes work by government IT officials to make Californias fractured state agencies act more like a single enterprise when delivering electronic information and services.
The contrast between Californias old and new Web sites is readily apparent. Where the old site offered static information and links to scattered state agency homepages, the MyCalifornia portal delivers one-stop access to nearly a dozen online services and an interface that invites users to tailor content to fit their needs. Not as apparent, however, are the policy shifts and management challenges that laid a foundation for the portal and a series of associated initiatives.
State officials say electronic government forced them to rewrite many of the rules for planning, implementing and operating IT systems. "Changing technology and changing peoples behavior need to be intertwined if this is going to be successful," said Steve Nissen, director of the Governors Office for Innovation in Government, an organization charged with improving customer service throughout California government. "Were fooling ourselves if we think we can [just] make changes in technology."
Nissen is one of three highly placed state officials appointed by Davis to improve customer service at state agencies and kick-start e-government efforts. He works with eGovernment Director Arun Baheti and Chief Information Officer Elias Cortez in a jurisdiction that routinely confronts IT challenges bigger than those faced by many nations.
"A lot of people see only the portal. They havent seen all of the hard work behind it," said Cortez, whose Department of Information Technology (DOIT) has focused on strengthening technology infrastructure and promoting the interagency teamwork that is essential to enterprise-wide e-government. "At the end of the day, our biggest challenge is moving forward together and engaging all of the players."
Setting the Stage
The seeds for closer cooperation between Californias notoriously independent state agencies were sown several years before the portals birth, with the creation of an interagency e-government task force and a government-wide alliance hammered together to address year-2000 concerns.
The task force, established shortly after Davis took office in 1999, had a dramatic impact simply because it pulled together CIOs and program managers from multiple agencies for a common purpose, said Nissen.
"Traditionally, the state didnt see itself as one enterprise helping a customer group known as Californians," he said. "Many of these departments have tens of thousands of employees in their own right, and they rarely speak to each other. Budgets are not set up to work together, and, politically, it is very rare that somebody provided executive sponsorship to bring these departments together to work collaboratively."
As part of the task force effort, the innovation office also briefed each of the states constitutional officers and major department directors on Californias intention to take a unified approach to delivering electronic services. "We wanted to prepare the program people to embrace a new way of doing business," Nissen said. "Two years ago e-government was a twinkle in the eye of many government jurisdictions, and it certainly was in California."
At the same time, the rapidly approaching Y2K deadline was forcing agencies - and the states three branches of government - to bury their IT differences. "For the first time, the state pulled itself together as one set of three major enterprises to solve a major challenge," said Cortez. "We are applying that management model as we develop enterprise technology initiatives."
Regular interaction among Californias diverse group of IT decision-makers is a key legacy of Californias Y2K experience, according to the CIO. More than 500 state business program leaders now meet quarterly at Executive Leadership Forums to talk about using emerging technology to improve government programs. Cortez also meets with Californias 80 agency CIOs every two weeks in an effort to keep them moving in the same direction.
In addition, the massive task of readying state government computer systems for the year 2000 date change taught IT managers to take a phased approach to large, enterprise projects. Cortez said phasing is particularly important for electronic government projects, which often involve complex process reengineering.
"We are driving big issues such as change management and policy," he said. "Were not just doing technology, so it really requires that we start looking at these things in manageable chunks."
Reaping the Reward
Californias $2 million portal project offers the best evidence yet that the struggle to mold state agencies into a cohesive team is paying off. Completed in slightly more than 100 days, the site offers a tightly integrated package of electronic services from a diverse set of state agencies. It gives users access to about a dozen online services, including booking appointments with the Department of Motor Vehicles, checking the status of tax refunds and reserving state park campsites.
"We started with a core group of about 10 departments for the initial roll out," said Baheti, who was chosen by Davis last year to head the portal implementation. "You can see that those departments really came on board and they believe in it. They really came through for us."
In keeping with the phased philosophy, California will continually integrate more departments and electronic services into the portal. The state is also poised to begin adding local government services to the site.
Building a technical framework with enough capacity and flexibility to meet the sprawling states needs prompted Baheti to take an unconventional implementation approach. Although state governments commonly seek a single vendor for major IT projects, California adopted a best-of-breed strategy involving more than a dozen contractors.
The state tapped Deloitte Consulting for primary integration, Sun Microsystems for hardware and operating systems, Cisco Systems for networking support, Verity for the search engine, BroadVision Inc. for personalization software, Interwoven for content management and Broadbase Software for analytics and e-marketing applications.
"We didnt limit ourselves to one companys platform. To me, thats a dangerous place to be," said Baheti. "Because we went best of breed, we can switch out a component at any moment we want to."
Although the best-of-breed concept may have fallen from favor in government, its well accepted among the commercial businesses that became the model for Californias new Web presence. "We looked at other governments to see how they were doing things, but frankly, the place where we learned the most about the basic approach was the private sector," Baheti said. "Were a Fortune 5 company in terms of our size and our spending. We wanted a Web site that would be credible for any Fortune 5 company."
Bahetis efforts produced a technological framework robust enough to host new e-government services and open enough to allow agencies to plug in existing applications. The state intends to host new applications directly on the portal, which is housed in Californias Teale Data Center. Legacy systems operated by individual agencies will stay put, but theyll be integrated with the site to provide a seamless look and feel.
"We are mandating tighter integration, so all of the presentation layer will be coming through the portal," said Baheti. "We dont necessarily want to move everything onto the portal. Thats an option, but Im wary of taking a one-size-fits-all approach in a state thats this diverse and has this many legacy systems."
California funded the portals construction through a general fund appropriation to the Department of General Services (DGS), and agencies pay a fee to access the infrastructure. "Everyone saves money because they are using a shared resource," said Baheti. "The ability to bring in departments and local governments is critical to our success, and likewise is the ability to have them each pay only for their share of the costs into the DGS."
On the Horizon
With the initial portal up and running, California IT officials have shifted attention to populating the site with new e-government services. The state recently created a $10 million fund designed to finance innovative projects and IT policymakers are promoting the concept that future e-government applications must be quickly installed and easily shared among agencies and ready to grow.
Baheti said the portal eventually will house a series of central applications to handle core tasks such as payment processing, permitting and licensing, and forms management for agencies throughout the state. "Theres no reason to build these systems over and over again, which is what we do now," he said.
Cortez insists the unified approach taken with Y2K and the initial portal development will continue as Californias e-government efforts evolve.
"In the past, systems were developed myopically for a program solution. They were not cross-cutting," he said. "That old, stovepipe methodology is going away."