Locke on the Future

Gov. Gary Locke reveals his states blueprint for technology leadership.

by / July 17, 2001 0
Gary Locke was elected to his first term as Washingtons governor in Nov. 1996. Four years later, the states voters elected him to his second term. During his time at the helm, the state has won Government Technologys Digital State award three times in a row. The first Chinese-American governor in U.S. history, Locke began his political career in 1982 when he was elected to Washingtons House of Representatives.

Q: YOUVE SPENT NEARLY 20 YEARS INVOLVED IN POLICYMAKING AT THE LOCAL AND STATE LEVELS. DURING THAT TIME, HOW MUCH HAVE YOU SEEN TECHNOLOGY CHANGE WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ELECTED OFFICIAL?

LOCKE: When I first came to the Legislature, our assistants, secretaries and aides didnt even have self-correcting typewriters. Of course, weve moved way beyond that to everybody being computerized. Now, members of the House of Representatives have laptops in front of them on the floor of the House. Weve moved from using volumes and volumes of paper that legislators referred to when looking up legislation to having that information instantly in front of them.

When we wrote budgets, we used calculators. Now, our budget analysts are able to run a whole bunch of scenarios and variations with the click of a mouse.

Q: HAS TECHNOLOGY CREATED NEW PRESSURES FOR POLITICIANS?

LOCKE: I dont know that technology has created more pressures; its certainly enabled those in public policy and in government to respond much more quickly to their constituents as well as made government more accessible and understandable to the citizens. When I first became a county executive, I was intent on [using] technology to speed up and simplify our purchasing processes, to streamline county government -- county revenues were constantly shrinking as more cities came into being and, yet, our obligations were growing.

Ive always believed that technology was important as a tool for not only making government more accessible and user friendly for our citizens, but also to streamline government and to free up dollars that we need for police, jails, prisons and parks.

Q: YOUVE ARGUED FOR STATE/REGIONAL PARTNERSHIPS TO DEAL WITH TRANSPORTATION ISSUES, FOR EXAMPLE. DO YOU SEE SUCH PARTNERSHIPS HELPING TO DEVELOP TECHNOLOGY INITIATIVES THAT BENEFIT REGIONS ACROSS THE STATE?

LOCKE: When people want to interact with government, they dont know all the different divisions, forms and layers. They dont know that something is the responsibility of a city, county or state, [or] hybrid forms of government.

Through the use of technology, when citizens access our Web site, there ought to be links and search engines that will enable them to hook up with whatever government they need. They want a simple permit; they dont know who they have to go to.

Thats the type of collaboration and partnerships that we can have with local governments, other states and even the federal government, so that the interactions between a government and a citizen are much more simplified.

Q: HOW FAR AWAY IS THE DAY WHEN A PERSON CAN GO TO ONE WEB SITE TO TAKE CARE OF ANY TYPE OF TRANSACTION, WHETHER ITS WITH A CITY, COUNTY OR STATE?

LOCKE: Were working on that right now in Washington. In fact, this week [the week of April 26] there is a meeting of the states association of counties and cities. On the agenda is the goal of building this kind of "virtual front door" to transactional services from every level of government in Washington.

A first step to achieving this is to have a strong, comprehensive search engine on a state Internet portal. Our new Ask George search tool ... provides exactly that element. Our proposal is to program the search engine to find city and county information, and then help people at the local level do whats necessary so Ask George can find their Web pages and services in a nice, neat package.

Thats also why our Department of Information Services is so important. We need to have standard protocols so that, as different local governments put together their pages and their links, we have a common format.

Q: OVER THE NEXT SEVERAL YEARS, HOW WILL THE NEW ECONOMY FORCE POLICY MAKERS AT THE STATE AND LOCAL LEVELS TO RETHINK THEIR USUAL APPROACHES TO SOLVING THE ECONOMIC ISSUES THAT FACE THEM?

LOCKE: The key to taking advantage of the opportunities of the New Economy is to make sure that communities across Washington have modern, advanced telecommunications infrastructures so that businesses, homeowners and schools can take advantage of technology. Without the proper infrastructure, youre not going to be able to take advantage of technology.

What weve done is use state dollars in partnership with local governments -- and working with very specific companies that want to locate in a particular area -- to pay for that one mile of fiber optics or provide a loop around a commercial area so that those companies have access to a state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure that, sometimes, local telephone companies are slow to install. We cant wait for those telephone companies, because sometimes theyd rather focus on the very densely populated urban areas. Well put in the investment.

Second, youve got to have a trained workforce. Everything that companies ask for or talk about in terms of whether to locate in a rural area is, "Well, do you have a highly trained workforce that can respond to this technology; thats versed in this technology?"

Thats why we have a lot of programs focused not just on the college level, but the high school and even the middle school and elementary school levels.

Just as we have a digital divide between people, thats [also] true between rural and urban areas, and that needs to be addressed. I introduced legislation last year, which the Legislature passed, that allows ports and public utility districts to get into the wholesale telephone service, especially in the rural areas, because the major telephone companies only want to focus their investments in large urban areas.

Q: IS IT THE STATES ROLE TO GRAB A STICK AND THUMP THE MAJOR TELEPHONE COMPANIES ON THE HEAD FOR NOT DOING WHAT THE STATE WANTS? OR IS IT THE STATES ROLE TO CIRCUMVENT THE COMPANYS HESITANCY?

LOCKE: What weve done is enabled others to get into the arena the telephone companies dont want to get into. Were neither thumping them nor circumventing them; were giving other people the opportunity to come in and provide a service where the telephone companies dont want to. Perhaps thats spurred them, and ... [is] causing them to re-evaluate their commitment to rural areas.

Q: WASHINGTON HAS WON THE DIGITAL STATE AWARD FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS. WHAT SORT OF BEHIND-THE-SCENES TEAMWORK IS REQUIRED FOR THE STATE TO PUT ITSELF OUT IN FRONT OF OTHERS WHEN IT COMES TO DELIVERING ELECTRONIC SERVICES?

LOCKE: Its a delicate balance between trying to provide a common format or template for our agencies to work with, while, at the same time, not [stifling] creativity among the agencies; using our Department of Information Services as a key, common consultant that gives agencies technical advice; and using the expertise and the creativity in the DIS to try to design that foundation.

Its like a condo: You build all the units. You build the infrastructure, the foundation and the shell, and each tenant, each owner of the condo unit, can customize it any way they want and emphasize things that are unique to them.

We also bring in people from the private sector to look at our technology initiatives. We ask our agencies to focus on their customers, the priority needs of their customers, whether its a person who wants a drivers license or a business that wants to pay its taxes over the Internet or people who want to reserve a camp site at a state park.

Three consecutive Digital State awards show Washington residents that their government is working to be as good at delivering services on the Internet as the private sector. Every year we win that award, it means that Washington residents can do more than ever before with their government, at their convenience.

Plenty of teamwork is required to consistently put Washington out in front of other states. All of our state agencies have unique initiatives, stakeholders and constituents. But it helps for them to realize that many citizens dont know which agency delivers a given service. To most citizens, we are perceived simply as "the government." The more we act as a community, the better the experience gets for the citizen or business. To reinforce a community approach to digital government, we work hard to reach out, collaborate and build the kinds of infrastructure and projects that invite multi-agency participation.

Q: IS THERE ANY ONE WAY OF DOING THINGS THAT HAS HELPED THE STATE THE MOST?

LOCKE: Ive really pushed the agencies to be willing to take risk, to be ambitious in their projects, knowing that they may not all meet our expectations or the expectations and high standards set by the agencies themselves. But the agencies have to shoot high. I tell them, "Be as bold and creative and as quick as the private sector."

Some of our agencies, when I first took office, wanted to wait four or five years to enable businesses to pay their taxes over the Internet, for example, because those agencies wanted to get the system down absolutely perfect. And I said, "If the private sector can move so quickly, why does it take us four or five years?" We shouldnt be afraid of developing a prototype and testing it out, and if it turns out to be wrong and we need to make some changes, well go ahead and do it. We shouldnt strive to try to design instant perfection the day that we launch the initiative.

Weve also had great competition among agencies to try to see which ones can be more imaginative, responsive and faster in providing services to their stakeholders.

Q: WHEN YOU PUT TOGETHER YOUR PLAN FOR DELIVERING SERVICES ELECTRONICALLY, IS THERE ONE PERSON WHO ACTS AS THE VISIONARY AND OTHERS WHO ACT TO REALIZE THAT VISION? OR IS THERE A BLENDING OF STYLES?

LOCKE: I dont profess to be an expert in technology, and I cant keep up with the latest nomenclature or equipment. I have a hard enough time just finding time to read. But I know the power of technology. I know how much blue-collar men and women might fear or have some anxiety over this new technology and how it might affect their profession and jobs.

I want our state and our state agencies to make it easier for citizens to interact with government. I want to reduce the paperwork within government. I want to free up all the bureaucratic steps and reduce costs so we can move those dollars into the direct delivery of services.

I guess Im the guy out there cheering our agencies on and pushing them, telling them that their time frames are a little too slow, theyve got to move faster. Theyve got to do a better job of marketing the services that they provide using technology.

I leave it up to Steve [Kolodney] (former state CIO) and his crew to design and build the framing of the house, leaving each agency to fill in the details and do the customized interior decorating on their own.

Q: THERES BEEN SEVERAL REPORTS SUGGESTING THAT STATES ARE GOING TO HAVE BUDGET PROBLEMS IN THE FUTURE, AND THAT THEYRE GOING TO HAVE TO CUT SPENDING. HOW HAS WASHINGTON FUNDED INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY PROJECTS THAT INVOLVE SEPARATE AGENCIES AND THAT TAKE SEVERAL YEARS? HOW SHOULD STATES, IN GENERAL, APPROACH TECH FUNDING?

LOCKE: You have to allocate the dollars.

In the early 80s, state and local governments had financial problems, but they made a commitment to set aside some dollars for technology. If we hadnt done that, wed still be using non-correcting typewriters. Youve got to spend the money at some point, and maybe the softening economy means that you have to stretch it out a little bit or slow down conversions to technology. But you cant stop. If youre always going to wait for that better day, thatll never happen because there will always be crises that come along -- earthquakes, droughts, prescription drug crises, skyrocketing medical costs -- that people will say have to take a higher priority.

We need to make sure that each agency allocates some money for these technological projects and improvements.

While in the current budget environment, we must review all proposed expenditures with great care. We view the build-out of Digital Washington as a prudent long-term investment that we need to continue to make.

We are very successful at developing and implementing technology in Washington because we take an incremental approach. We favor this approach and recommend it to others because it allows us to adopt sophisticated, long-range, detailed technology plans that let us take the needed steps in the right order, in an affordable manner.

This means that even when budgets get especially tight, we still take the right steps in the right sequence -- but maybe at a slower pace then when there is more money available.

We also prefer to guide our large projects with oversight from an Information Services Board comprised of executive branch, legislative and private-sector people. At the operational level, we rely on an Executive Steering
Committee of deputy directors from all over government to flesh-out these complex, statewide, multi-agency projects. These groups provide perspective and capabilities to guide these projects over the long haul so that we can make our large-scale efforts a success.

Q: SHOULD STATES BE ALLOWED TO TAX REMOTE SALES MADE TO THEIR RESIDENTS BY COMPANIES VIA THE INTERNET?

LOCKE: Ultimately, there needs to be a level playing field between brick-and-mortar retailers and online retailers. I firmly believe there should not be taxes on access to the Internet, but I dont think we should give an undue advantage to online retailers or even catalog sales. Before that can ever happen, there needs to be a simplification of the states tax systems.

Q: WHAT IS WASHINGTONS LEVEL OF PARTICIPATION IN THE STREAMLINED SALES TAX PROJECT?

LOCKE: I support the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, an effort by states with sales taxes to simplify and harmonize their sales tax systems with a goal of reducing the burden of collection by remote sellers.

States without an income tax, such as Washington, are highly dependent on sales-tax revenues to provide education, police protection and other essential services. We have a duty to guard against the erosion of this tax base as Internet commerce grows.

I also think fairness dictates that we level the playing field, tax-wise, between brick-and-mortar and online retailers. Taxes should apply uniformly to all retail sales, regardless of the medium over which those sales take place.

This is a nonpartisan issue, because most of the governors in the United States are Republicans. But one thing we all agree on is that the states ought to have the flexibility to design whatever tax system they think is appropriate to them. Most states do have some form of a sales tax to support local government functions, as well as state obligations.

Q: IS WASHINGTON LOOKING TO ADOPT THE SIMPLIFIED SALES-TAX LEGISLATION?

LOCKE: The project is still ongoing, and I cant comment on what the final product will be. Clearly, there needs to be tax simplification and greater consistency across the country. We dont want online retailers to have to know the tax rates of some 3,000 to 6,000 jurisdictions, and much more difficult than that, to know the varying definitions.

Its one thing to have several thousand different tax rates; its another thing to have differences in what items and services are taxed from one jurisdiction to another: childrens clothing versus adult clothing versus outdoor gear.

Q: CONGRESS IS CONSIDERING APPROXIMATELY 50 PRIVACY BILLS DEALING WITH VARIOUS TYPES OF E-COMMERCE AND HOW PERSONAL INFORMATION IS PROTECTED. SOME OF THOSE BILLS WOULD PREEMPT STATES RIGHTS TO CREATE THEIR OWN PRIVACY POLICIES WITH RESPECT TO ONLINE RETAILERS. DO YOU BELIEVE THAT STATES SHOULD BE ABLE TO SET THEIR OWN RULES? OR WOULD IT BE BETTER TO HAVE A FEDERAL FRAMEWORK PUT IN PLACE?

LOCKE: The preference would be to have some sort of federal framework in place. If youre dealing with interstate commerce, then having a patchwork of different rules could be very, very difficult for transactions that will span the world. Having 50 totally different systems and definitions could be very unwieldy.

Nonetheless, if the federal government doesnt step up, I believe its incumbent upon the states to try to work on this issue -- maybe using interstate compacts or uniform laws. Its something that the public wants addressed; people want some sense of security, as they use the Internet, that personal and private information, financial information and medical information will not be disclosed without their permission, without their knowledge.

The best way to handle it is through the federal government.

Privacy issues must be addressed. At the state level, we dont want people who interact with the state to feel that their privacy might be invaded. I issued an executive order last year that requires state government to severely restrict and curtail the amount of sensitive information that we collect from citizens, whether online or on paper.

The best way to avoid the disclosure of sensitive, personal information is to not collect it in the first place. Our agencies cannot sell or disclose that private information unless required by law.

No matter what level of government enforces privacy standards, I believe that any government entity with a data-collecting application must adopt a privacy statement that spells out what data is collected and exactly how it is used. In Washington, more than 50 state agencies have adopted a consistent model privacy statement developed by our Department of Information Services.

Q: DO YOU SEE ELECTRONIC GOVERNMENT AS SIMPLY ALLOWING PEOPLE TO RENEW CERTAIN LICENSES OR PAY CERTAIN FEES ONLINE? OR IS IT MORE ABOUT IMPROVING PARTICIPATION IN THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS?

LOCKE: Digital government should and does mean something deeper than providing a given service on the Internet. It is a long-term outlook that fundamentally changes the way governments respond to and think about their constituents. It transforms organizations on the inside and makes them more outward facing. It blurs the lines that separate departments and agencies.

It lets us do business in new ways within government -- with powerful pieces of technology like digital signatures and electronic forms. Most importantly, digital government provides a way to re-establish trust in government and to improve a set of relationships between those who govern and those who ultimately own government -- the people.

The simpler it is for citizens to interact with government -- whether its transacting business, getting drivers licenses online, reserving a camp site online, paying taxes or just getting information about government, not having to attend a hearing but being able to watch it online or getting copies of legislation and understanding whats being proposed -- the more that instills greater confidence in government among our citizens.

Q: WHAT SORT OF LESSONS DID YOU LEARN FROM YOUR RECENT EARTHQUAKE?

LOCKE: We learned much about what we did right, which includes terrific preparedness from all levels of the western Washington community and response organizations.

In terms of technology, we learned some very interesting things. For example, the Internet and the state home page became the main communication channel for citizens immediately following the quake.

People turned to e-mail and the Web to stay informed. It ended up being a great opportunity to test Access Washington and our online communications capabilities and to step up to the plate with an "earthquake clearinghouse" that linked to resources and delivered timely and helpful information when citizens needed it the most.

Our systems came through very well. We know that were prone to earthquakes, and you never can tell how you will respond because there are so many variables.

You can never be totally prepared, but you cant be complacent either.