In February, West Point, Va., Town Councilman Olen Sikes approached Virginia Secretary of Technology Donald Upson for advice on linking his tiny community to the Web. By the end of the conversation, Sikes had planted the seeds for one of the commonwealth's most innovative technology endeavors.
The chance encounter, during a technology conference in Richmond, quickly blossomed into Virginia's e-Communities initiative, an ambitious plan to create blueprints to help local jurisdictions become players in the emerging Internet economy.
"Through the course of the conversation, [Sikes] and I discussed the concept that there are probably a lot of communities like West Point," recalled Upson. "We said, 'Why don't we try to put together a task force? Let's see if we can come up with a solution for all of them.'"
Within months, Virginia had assembled a group of local government officials, private industry representatives and educators to tackle the issue. Dubbed the e-Communities Task Force, the organization will produce a series of e-government blueprints by mid-2001 designed to help small jurisdictions put a wide range of civic and business activities online.
"My dream is to get every home in West Point connected to high-speed Internet and cable television," said Sikes, a councilman for the 3,000-person community perched on the banks of the York River in east-central Virginia. "I told [Upson] about it, and then we just sort of went on from there."
The grassroots origin of the e-Communities program and the swiftness with which the initiative came together offers evidence that the several years spent retooling Virginia's state government to meet the realities of the Digital Age are bearing fruit.
Since his appointment as secretary of technology in 1998, Upson has labored to implement the vision of Republican Gov. James Gilmore, one of the nation's most tech-savvy governors. Fundamentally, the state intends to use technology to break down bureaucracy and move government closer to the people. According to Upson, among the challenges in reaching that goal is keeping traditional government thinking from strangling Web innovation.
"If you really believe in our government, you have to believe that citizens have some pretty good ideas, and [Sikes] did," said Upson. "The greatest opportunity that technology offers us is it returns power to the individual if we embrace it instead of trying to regulate it and legislate it to death."
Betting on the Web
Like other IT leaders in the South, Virginia decided early to make technology a central component of its economy. And perhaps no state in the nation has taken a broader approach to embracing opportunities presented by the Web.
"The greatest opportunity that technology offers us is it returns power to the individual if we embrace it instead of trying to regulate it and legislate it to death."
-- Donald Upson, Virginia secretary of technology
Besides creating Upson's secretary of technology position -- a post charged with overseeing statewide IT issues and encouraging growth of e-government and e-business -- Gilmore established the Commission on Information Technology, a high-level advisory body on Internet and e-commerce issues made up of business, technology and government leaders.
In 1999, state lawmakers enacted the Virginia Internet Policy Act to address emerging issues like e-mail spam, privacy and electronic distribution of information requested under the state's Freedom of Information Act. Gilmore followed up that legislation with a pair of executive orders directing executive branch agencies and higher education institutions to expand the delivery of services through the Web.
This year, Virginia became one of just a handful of states to adopt the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act, which erects a framework for Internet commerce. In addition, Gilmore unveiled an ambitious plan, dubbed the Digital Dominion, meant to solidify Virginia's position as an Internet leader. The plan includes a number of elements designed to increase technology use in government, in private industry and among citizens.
"We're trying to establish ground rules for conducting e-business," said Joe T. May, co-chairman of the Science and Technology Committee within the Virginia House of Delegates. "Technology is the largest industry in the commonwealth at this point, and we believe that what's good for technology is likely to be good for the state."
Against this policy backdrop, Upson has consistently worked to erase the lines dividing state agencies and dividing state and local jurisdictions -- an issue he sees as vital to the creation of enterprise-wide electronic government. "Nobody can execute any real e-government plan unless they have consensus first, because the bureaucracy will beat you every time," he said.
Virginia's Council On Technology Services (COTS) -- a policy-making group of IT leaders from state agencies, local agencies and education -- plays a key role in that effort. Upson credits COTS with raising the stature of agency CIOs and creating broad support for interagency and intergovernmental undertakings. "We've been able to execute where it's been difficult for any government to execute before because we've been very deliberate in building that buy-in," he said.
For example, Upson's office is putting the final touches on a seat management contract that will reach an estimated 60,000 desktops in state agencies, local governments and educational institutions. The state also intends to issue RFPs early next year for an enterprise-wide, digital-signature solution that will be available to all levels of government.
The commonwealth's Department of Motor Vehicles offers a glimpse of where Virginia e-government is headed. The agency offers all major citizen-to-government transactions online, was an early adopter of a contract to procure desktop computing resources on a per-seat basis and is now forging links with one of Virginia's largest counties to create an integrated state and local network of e-government kiosks.
CIO Cheryl Clark said the DMV benefits from a series of forward-thinking IT decisions, including the choice of a seat management-style computing contract. "We decided early on that we wanted to push PCs out to all of our employees and provide training, management and regular replenishment of those resources to keep everything up to date," she said. "Most other organizations in government haven't been able to do that, and we did that about six years ago."
Putting modern, Internet-connected PCs on the desks of all DMV employees laid a foundation for the agency's e-government efforts, which include what Clark says is the nation's first online driver's license renewal application. Another key to that effort was the DMV's adoption several years ago of a digitized driver's license system that allows the agency to easily reproduce earlier driver photos for licenses renewed online.
With little marketing or publicity, online driver's license renewals quickly became the agency's most popular Web offering, Clark said. Introduced last December, the application currently processes about 12 percent of Virginia's driver's license renewals, and Clark predicts the number may reach 20 percent by the end of the commonwealth's fiscal year in June 2001.
Innovations like these have garnered both local and national attention. Last year, Gilmore presented the DMV with his Governor's Technology Award in recognition of its technical advances. This year, the agency captured Government Technology's Best of the Web award and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's e-Citizen award, both of which honor agency efforts to implement online citizen services.
"The DMV is moving light years beyond the old, conventional government service models," said Gilmore when the MIT award was released.
Indeed, the agency has taken an unconventional approach to several e-government issues, including the debate over levying extra charges on electronic services. Where agencies in some states add a "convenience fee" to Web transactions, the Virginia DMV gives a discount to drivers who renew their license or vehicle registration online.
"We're trying to get customers to go to this way of doing business," said Clark. "We think that it's a good investment because we see that, in the future, there are going to be big benefits, not only in savings for government, but in convenience for citizens."
The same reasoning underlies the DMV's decision to absorb the cost of credit card fees charged by financial institutions when citizens use plastic to pay for online transactions. According to Clark, the fees amount to about two percent of the transaction amount, or roughly 40 cents for a driver's license renewal and 76 cents for a one-year vehicle renewal.
Upson said saddling online transactions with additional fees sends "exactly the wrong message" to potential users, particularly the technology companies that power a good deal of the state's economy. "We're trying to build the best business environment for tech companies. What do you think they pay taxes for? So now they're going to pay a fee to pay taxes more easily?" he said. "We say, 'Come to Virginia and we'll make it a lot easier for you.'"
Upson said the commonwealth adheres to a policy of treating all service delivery mediums equally. That philosophy discourages extra fees for online transactions, and it frowns on such things as privacy regulations that apply to the Web, but not other delivery channels, he said.
The DMV also spearheads Virginia's attempt to blur the boundary between state and local government. In a groundbreaking move, the agency intends to link its new network of public kiosks with county government kiosks already operating in northern Virginia.
The DMV is readying an initial release of 35 Web-based kiosks that will offer 24-hour access to license renewals, vehicle registrations, address changes and other common transactions. The agency is working with Fairfax County, which is converting its existing kiosk network to a Web-based architecture, to establish common standards that will allow the jurisdictions to deliver services through each other's machines.
Fairfax County CIO David Molchany said establishing this type of intergovernmental cooperation ranks among the most pressing issues facing local jurisdictions. Molchany, a member of Virginia's Council on Technology Services, credits monthly COTS meetings with fostering a new era of collaboration among state and local agencies.
"I think that we are definitely getting there through COTS," he said. "One of the best things COTS has done is brought people together from state government, local government and education so we can actually know each other. We can actually start to work together and form relationships.
"It's really another digital divide, and you need to cross that divide by getting people to work together," he added.
Targeting a more conventional divide, Virginia has fashioned one of the nation's most comprehensive plans to spread the benefits of a technology-driven economy to rural communities. A concentration of IT companies in northern Virginia allows the state to bill itself as "home of the Internet." But a number of the commonwealth's rural communities still depend on declining industries such as tobacco farming and textiles.
Virginia responded to the issue by creating the Digital Opportunities Program, an extensive attempt to address digital-divide issues on a coordinated, statewide basis. Among other things, the program established Virginia's Digital Opportunities Task Force, a public/private organization charged with ensuring that citizens have access to computer technology and the Internet, marshalling digital-divide resources and encouraging community-based initiatives.
Jim Clinton, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, a group that tracks economic development in the South, said Virginia has been quick to address Digital Age inequities. "I think that they took it seriously early," he said. "Certainly, in terms of aggressively seeing both the problem and opportunity side of it and acting on it, [Virginia] has been a leader."
Several of Virginia's major "digital opportunity" initiatives -- the state avoids the term "digital divide" -- will flow through the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), a non-profit, government-funded company responsible for creating a fertile environment for technology businesses.
For instance, CIT will help create the community e-government blueprints that form the cornerstone of Virginia's e-communities initiative. CIT and the newly formed E-communities Task Force are now confronting the task of assembling step-by-step guides for building Web-connected communities.
"We're making this up as we go along," admitted CIT President Anne Armstrong. "One of the challenges is being specific enough to be helpful, but not so specific that the blueprints don't scale or generalize well."
The organization also administers Virginia Link, a multivendor contract offering competitively priced broadband telecommunications services to businesses throughout the state. Under the program, CIT aggregates telecom demand from Virginia businesses, negotiates discount pricing from vendors and passes the savings on to participating local companies, according to Armstrong.
Armstrong expects Virginia Link to hold strong appeal for small firms. "If you're Newport News Shipbuilding, you can probably negotiate pretty aggressive telecom prices," she said. "But if you're Sam's Florist, you may not be in the same position. This is an effort to help smaller businesses take advantage of aggressive prices."
Virginia Link's contract offerings and marketing efforts just recently reached full strength. But the program already has reduced the cost of high-speed connectivity, despite the small number of current users. "Just the presence of this contract is bringing prices down in the competitive marketplace," said Armstrong. "We consider it a success if everybody gets lower prices. And it's having that effect."
Furthermore, CIT holds e-business seminars throughout the commonwealth designed to help local companies gain the knowledge they need to compete in the Internet marketplace. The organization conducted five seminars in 2000 -- covering wireless and XML technology, security and other topics -- under what is known as Virginia's Main Street to e-Street program.
The program's goal, said Armstrong, is to expose small businesses to new technology and to vendors that can show them how to use it -- all in a non-threatening environment. "You can get this information [elsewhere], but it usually comes with a sales pitch," she said.
Taking the Stage
Armstrong sees CIT's efforts as vital to retaining employers in an Internet economy that allows companies to operate from virtually anywhere. "We need to continue to offer businesses what they need to succeed because we want them to stay here," she said. "We are in a global marketplace, and we have to stay competitive. We need to realize that we can steal somebody's lunch, but they can also have us for lunch."
Indeed, one of the greatest impacts of Virginia's government IT initiatives -- everything from making state agencies easier for citizens and businesses to deal with, to giving local communities and companies a hand in connecting to the digital economy -- is being felt far from home. According to Upson, who regularly conducts international trade missions aimed at improving the competitiveness of Virginia-based firms, the aggressive technology agenda has helped boost the commonwealth's stature before a worldwide audience of investors, customers and potential employers.
"What's happened in very short order is Virginia has gotten quite a bit of attention, and it's paying off for us," he said. "People don't ask, 'Why Virginia?' anymore."
By Steve Towns, Features Editor