Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, who chairs the Western Governors' Association, advocates the use of information technology as a tool for economic development, health care and education. With the WGA, he is championing the Virtual University -- recently named the Western Governors' University -- which could enable Western state residents to work on degrees using distance learning. A Democrat, he is currently campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

The following interview was conducted

by Brian Miller, features editor.

GT: How has your administration been using information technology to reform or change Nebraska's state government?

Nelson: Because Nebraska is a geographically challenged state -- meaning it has a lot of territory, a lot of geography and a small population -- we've used information technology as well as video technology to bridge those distances in education, telemedicine and economic development. Our public television is one of the leading institutions in the country in terms of bridging that gap with information and programming.

We've also been working on making government more open and efficient, to expand access to health care and education, and to enhance economic opportunities just generally. What we are attempting to do is manage technology and our resources to achieve rapid, cost-effective results.

GT: How is your approach different from other states, given Nebraska's geography?

Nelson: We would probably begin working with distance learning. We had the Sandhills project. We developed partnerships with local schools and the private sector to do just that -- first with satellite technology and now with fiber-optic technology. I would say that we have been able to move ahead of other states.

We were one of the first states to deregulate telecommunications. For several years we've employed strategies using our state government's demand for telecommunications and services to leverage investment by the private sector. Some states have elected to invest government money in the technology. We've done some of that with satellite technology, but mostly we've leveraged our state resources with private resources.

GT: How does all of this, including the distance learning and the partnerships, further the goals of your administration?

Nelson: Communications shortening distances has been absolutely essential. I chose as a vision and mission statement for our state to be "One Nebraska" -- to be pulled together, to be unified in a very significant way. Communications is critical in establishing that kind of unified relationship so that distances won't divide us and keep us apart as they have in the past. This makes geography nearly irrelevant, if not irrelevant.

If you have your public television and your telecommunications system in place, people don't have to travel 500 miles to testify at legislative hearings at the state capitol. They can do it from offsite locations across the state.

Expanding that kind of technology really does bring the state together because it makes geography irrelevant. Geography is very relevant if you have to travel 10 to 12 hours and wait another five hours at a hearing to testify on legislation and/or you decide not to testify on legislation because you don't have the time to commit.

Education is also a good example. Being in a rural school or a small school in a sparsely populated area doesn't matter because you can connect to the Internet. Or, if you can have distance learning and be able to learn Japanese in a school of 200 students or less, then you don't have disadvantages based on size. You have the same opportunities as larger schools.

What you do is knock down the haves and have nots based on size, geography and, at times, resources -- financial resources, or funding -- within a school district. We're well on our way to connecting all of Nebraska's schools to the Internet by 2000.

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