Bill Lindner and the Florida Communities Network

Bill Lindner helped build an award-winning network for the state of Florida.

by / March 31, 1997 0
"Winner of the Best of the Web award for 1996 is ... the state of Florida, for the Florida Communities Network."

For Bill Lindner, secretary of Florida's Department of Management Services, few words could be more satisfying. His dedication to improving government was paying off and his project was being recognized as the state government Web site that was not only practical and profitable
for the government that ran it, but also offered the best service to its citizens.

Lindner's dedication to making government work better comes not only from his experiences as a successful architect in the private sector, but also from the influence of David Osborne and Ted Gaebler's book Reinventing Government. Shortly after he was invited to serve as secretary, Lindner and Gov. Lawton Chiles decided that making government work better both for itself and for the citizens would be their strategy. "We knew that budgets were going to climb at the end of the millennium," he said. "And we knew that to counter that we had to work to make government more efficient."

In 1991, Florida's Commission for Government by the People addressed the governor's goals for the future: "Gain the trust of Florida's people by becoming more customer-responsible, performance-driven and subject to measurable results." These words seem to sum up everything that Lindner believes in and works for.

His first step toward reaching this goal was to write and release a booklet titled From Regulator to Resource, a guide to improving the Department of Management Services, to help that department provide better service to its customers and live up to the level of quality that Lindner saw in the private sector and expected from government.

In the booklet, he explained why his department plays a key role in redefining government and how important it was that the department move from being a controlling agency to one that provided service to the communities. In the foreword he wrote: "Changing the way government works can only be accomplished by changing the way government thinks ... Redesigning systems and employing the right tools are important steps in creating change. But for change to be successful, we must have a plan -- a strategic plan that is performance-based, defining our core business functions and linking our budget to program outcomes and measures. This booklet is about rethinking government. It addresses the changes we are making to our structure, the tools to make the changes work and the plan we will use to make a difference in the way we think about government."

The Florida Communities Network (FCN) is a direct result of Lindner's dedication to rethinking government and making it more efficient. "FCN is really about providing government services directly to the citizens," he explained.

The idea for FCN resulted from Lindner's architectural background. He bought an early Apple and was captivated by its graphical user interface. For years in his architectural firm he used Hypercard for interactive programs to help contractors design and build houses -- and this gave him a taste of a successful interactive project.

When Mosaic appeared, Lindner realized that it was the same sort of program, just over a global network. "I was fortunate to have enough understanding of where this technology might go," he explained. "So two years ago, I went into a room with a group of my employees and said that we were going to do this thing called the Florida Communities Network and let's get started."

At that time, the technology was fairly new, and it was relatively unexplored territory for government agencies. "We sat around scratching our heads for about a month," he laughed. "But I knew that this was the logical strategy based on the promise of universal distribution." Lindner believes that the concept of the Internet fits in well with Gov. Chiles' conviction that to government, communities should come first.

Lindner's group worked to get FCN off the ground, beginning with data specifically from the Department of Management Services. In the beginning, only two agencies were on the Internet with FCN, but today all 28 of Florida's agencies participate. Located at , FCN currently receives more than 3 million hits per month. At present, the majority of the users are state employees, but as public access becomes more readily available, Lindner expects to see more of the general public using the site for their everyday needs.

One of the most frequently visited areas of FCN is the online job listing. According to Lindner, there are 8,000 state job vacancies listed at any given time, all searchable on an Oracle database. The Personnel Division has also put out an online training catalog that lists community colleges and private vendors that are posting opportunities for training available to state employees. "The neat part about the training catalog being online," Lindner said, "is that because so many of our state employees have Internet access, we only had to print 4,000 of these catalogs this year. In the interagency training unit, the number of employees has dropped from nine to one. This saves us about $250,000 per year. We now have 1,200 sq. ft. of space we no longer need and we've avoided $100,000 in printing costs each year. Our total cost to run the catalog is now about $20,000 per year and we have had offers from private vendors who will pay us to post their training offers in our catalog."

One of the most innovative things that Lindner has done with FCN is put Florida's purchasing information online in a subscription-based service. Each year, Florida purchases approximately $4 billion in products and services -- with cities and counties purchasing more than 60 percent of the items under the state contracts. Lindner saw FCN as a better way to connect those cites and counties with purchasing information. "Purchasing was a logical, internal, 'make government work better and cost less' kind of topic," he said. "Plus, it was in my department and I was responsible for it anyway."

Currently, the online purchasing area supports 1,200 subscribers, each paying $30 per month. Lindner believes that with the addition of subscriptions for vendors, as well as growth in the buyers area, the purchasing area on the Web will be self-funding or will break even in two years. The program has proven so innovative and successful that General Electric has approached Lindner to discuss purchasing nationally. Lindner said that GE was impressed with his system because it is so far ahead of any other government agency. "The purchasing area is one of the top three things I talk about," he remarked. "It exemplifies something Gov. Chiles believes in -- that state government needs to be more community-centered and less Tallahassee-centered."

Helping state government reach out into the communities is very important in a state like Florida. Lindner said Florida actually seems to be at least three states rolled into one: South Florida is a center of international trade and business, Central Florida, the "I-4 Corridor," is the tourist area and North Florida -- from the panhandle to Jacksonville -- is "the Florida as we think about it." According to Lindner, there are even counties where the population of cows to people is 10 to one. Building a network that is useful to and reaches all of these diverse areas has been a challenge.

Currently, the urban areas are served by a router network with a fiber-optic backbone, and the government is working on creating mini-hubs so they can reach some of the more remote areas. "Even the more difficult locations with small populations need
connectivity, just like everyone else," he said. Lindner has faith that, thanks to the Telecommunications Reform Act passed in Florida just prior to passage of the federal deregulation bill, the private sector will begin to provide bandwidth even to rural areas. "It may have to be mandated by the state," he remarked. "But I really think there's a good opportunity there."

Lindner is hoping to obtain more funds during this legislative session to reach underserved areas. "We're trying to get the government to recommend $3 million to expand our public access strategies, especially within community college libraries and around the state in local libraries." Currently many libraries can reach the state network through a dial-up network, but this funding would allow the state to connect more libraries at a higher bandwidth. Lindner's goal for FCN is to have it reach and work for the citizens of his state -- and by improving the availability of access, more citizens can be served.

By working to take FCN to a new level, Lindner is continuing to work toward improving the way that government works. One of the initiatives he hopes to accomplish during this session is legislation that would allow more use of electronic commerce with credit card transactions on the Web. "We're looking toward even more expanded electronic transactions over the network," he explained. "If this legislation passes, it will allow us to joint venture with technology companies to share revenue strategies."

Lindner found several vendors who are interested in helping with the upfront capital expenditure if they can share in the revenue stream.

Lindner has been working with Microsoft as a beta site for its new Normandy server software. He is very excited about the opportunity and said it's technology like that which will help FCN continue to improve.

And as far as his plans? "I intend to be even better next year, and I intend to win that award again and again."

* Bill Lindner has
helped build an
network for
Florida that's
the way state
government works.

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