Closing the Gap Between IT and Policy

Coping with the budget crunch demands broader role for technology.

by / May 21, 2003
By now it is no secret states are experiencing some of the most financially challenging times in their histories. Based on information provided by states, the National Governors Association (NGA) estimates states will need to close a collective $30 billion shortfall in their 2003 budgets. More striking is the projected $82.3 billion gap between current operating costs and anticipated fiscal 2004 revenues.

In the midst of some of the largest state budget deficits since World War II, governors are seeking policy solutions for priorities such as health care, education and homeland security. Where do the nation's governors go for solutions to these enormous challenges? They consult with policy advisers, agency heads and program administrators to guide them in developing policy, setting priorities and making difficult spending decisions.

Where does IT fit in the scheme of things when governors begin to reach out for solutions? Do they turn to CIOs? Do they even consider CIOs as policy advisers? The answers to those questions vary among states, but to a large extent, governors tend to think of IT as a utility -- a means by which to implement a solution rather than a solution itself.

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler agreed that educating newly elected officials about the role of technology in governance is important. "We have tried to improve the number of tools for governors and governors' staff," he said about the NGA's efforts. "Governors are great ones to copy what is already working. You just don't have time to reinvent things if it's not necessary."

Engler, who led Michigan's significant e-government efforts for 12 years, admitted that governors often underestimate the role of a CIO. "Most do not consider the CIO an integral part of their team," he said. "They have their budget director and treasurer and key people, but today I think the power of technology is such that they need to rethink the ground rules and bring that person along. They are key to the management of government and ought to be on the inside." Engler is now president of state and local government for EDS.

If anything, the CIO's status has diminished, according to Larry Singer, former CIO of Georgia.

"In 1998, 1999 and 2000 you had this group of people, brilliant people, who were brought into real leadership positions really working with our governors," he said, adding that very few gubernatorial candidates in 2002 focused on technology. The spotlight was on painful cuts caused by depleted budgets.

"Technology is how we deliver government services. It's not 'e-government' or something else. It is woven into the fabric of Medicaid, it's woven into the fabric of homeland defense. And I think it is very important to remind these new governors -- we just had the biggest freshman class of governors in history -- to help educate them and help them understand the critical role the CIO plays in their policy group," said Singer, who is now vice president of Sun Microsystem's Global Information Systems Strategy Office.

Most policy-makers do not view information technology as a solution. It is viewed as a tool to implement solutions. Though it is, as Singer said, woven into the fabric of nearly every state agency, program and operational structure, IT is still regularly separated out and referred to as an entity of its own.

IT solutions are commonly referred to as "projects" and "initiatives," and as such, in the current budget environment, they are at increased risk of being seen as adjuncts to policy solutions as opposed to solutions themselves.

There is a disconnect between policy solutions and IT solutions. In discussion sessions for past year -- which included governors, chiefs of staff and state CIOs -- chiefs observed that CIOs are largely seen as technology experts -- people who can manage the state's technology and/or advise policy-makers and agency heads on how to best organize state IT infrastructure, assets and purchasing.

As one chief put it, "Agency heads don't think of CIOs as business people." While that view may be true, most state CIOs would be disappointed to believe that observation sums up their expertise. Unfortunately it may be the prevailing opinion held by state policy advisers, agency heads and program administrators across the country. This view completely ignores the CIO's value as a strategic partner in creating solutions for major policy challenges. Among other things, CIOs are business process engineers who can play a critical role in providing solutions for creating better policy outcomes.

The result of these disconnects is that while IT solutions have tremendous value for improving policy outcomes, they frequently are not considered as a policy approach or an integral part of a policy solution, and CIOs are too often an afterthought in the policy-making process.

Closing the Gap
Kentucky CIO Aldona Valicenti said she believes CIOs must make these connections up front. "Most policy-makers view CIOs strictly as solutions implementers," she said. "They are not sought out on management issues. In addressing policy issues there is opportunity to address management issues, which in many cases need to be streamlined or fixed before technology solutions are put in place. As CIOs, good working relationships with policy and budget people are critical, so they know that's the point where we come in."

Just like IT professionals, policy-makers and policy advisers frequently operate in a world of their own -- complete with its own language and worldview. What drives them most, however, is creating a desired outcome through effective public policy. A meeting of the minds is needed to create a vision that brings IT solutions and those who manage and implement them into the policy-making comfort zone. The more policy advisers understand IT as a potent strategy in creating desired outcomes, the easier it will be to close the gap between these two worlds.

As Groucho Marx said, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

To get the message across, CIOs and IT solutions providers need to start thinking, talking in policy terms and approaching solutions with policy outcomes clearly in mind. Words such as "enterprise" and "architecture" mean little to policy advisers when trying to ensure prescription coverage for the elderly, assure quality education or prevent a terrorist attack.

Since homeland defense is relatively new and requires cooperation of multiple agencies and levels of government, the challenge to states is significant. Singer recalled one of Georgia's early efforts to create a communication channel among the state's 158 counties.

"When Tom Ridge and the folks at homeland defense were saying we needed to have intelligence capabilities to share information, Georgia had not considered IT to be a component of homeland defense," he recalled. "So what the homeland defense folks did was go out and buy a fax machine for each of the sheriffs. I think you have that same kind of naivet
Thom Rubel Contributing Writer