By now, the 20-plus new state CIOs and designated IT leaders are busy dealing with reality on several levels. Many individuals from the private sector anointed by governors are wrestling with understanding and maneuvering through the unique culture of government. At the same time, they are facing what Bob Bittenbender, former secretary for Pennsylvania's Office of the Budget, said is a nationwide fiscal climate unlike any since World War II.

Bittenbender created a baseline for discussion among CIOs at NASCIO's Midyear Conference in Pittsburgh. The stark reality did not cast a pallor of gloom on the veteran CIOs in attendance, or on their newly arrived counterparts. Instead there was general agreement that challenging times will create a climate for innovation that is difficult to achieve in prosperous years. According to a survey taken at the conference, 79 percent of CIOs present said the current budget crisis is "an opportunity to make real change in government."

For years, CIOs agreed that technology is the easy part of digital government. The hard part is implementing cultural change in government bureaucracies. With about 18 states facing deficits of 10 percent or more, and 33 states with at least 5 percent deficits, it's clear that change is in the air. It's not likely that technology solutions will be scrapped to make ends meet. Like "short term" taxes that governments impose, already-launched e-government solutions will be hard to take away. In addition, there is common agreement that technology is a tool for tough times -- capable of delivering cost savings, boosting internal efficiencies and creating new revenue streams. Therefore the arena for change may be in the social structure of government.

Once formidable obstacles, such as agency territoriality, proprietary systems and "ownership" issues, become intolerable in a climate of scarcity. Many CIOs at NASCIO's conference discussed consolidation projects that involve both IT applications and personnel. They expressed the belief that internal business re-engineering is now possible. George Bakolia, North Carolina's CIO, views current conditions as an opportunity to "reassess how we do business in state government." New York state CIO James T. Dillon said his state is "trying to do centralization on a shoestring," acknowledging that duplicated technologies plague governments and perpetuate an ingrained bureaucratic culture. Michigan CIO Teresa Takai heads an extensive consolidation project that will shake up the structure of her state's government. This reflects the condition that CIOs surveyed at the conference consider the biggest obstacle to accomplishing their goals -- continued fragmentation. Consolidation projects are a tool to force internal movement toward a more horizontal structure throughout government.

With a record number of new governors, and consequently new CIOs, fresh ideas are emerging. Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn challenged the status quo by asking, "Where is our sustainable revenue in government?" This might have been a radical idea once. Today it's a necessary one. Veteran IT champions, like Delegate Joe May from Virginia, find they are no longer alone in emphasizing the need for fundamental change. "Virginia has been in business for 400 years," he said. "We went from an agrarian economy to a technology-based economy and didn't change our tax structure." May thinks the current fiscal crisis will get the attention of legislators and precipitate fundamental change.

That change will come in the processes that fuel government operations and the structures that support its culture. Technology is now embedded in the DNA of government, enabling an evolution driven by economic necessity. Kentucky CIO Aldona Valicenti believes e-government already has new meaning as "everyday government."

New IT leaders and their more experienced counterparts -- like Valicenti, Carolyn Purcell, Gerry Wethington, Rock Regan, Greg Jackson and Otto Doll -- clearly see opportunities arising from a fiscal dilemma that promises to get worse before it gets better. If they seize the moment, they may finally penetrate the wall of social and cultural resistance that has stifled digital government's true potential.

Darby Patterson  |  Executive Editor at Large