Most state capitols take their architectural cues from our nation's grandiose capitol with its gleaming marble, huge dome and rows of Greco-Roman columns. But not New York. The exterior of its state capitol, cut from huge slabs of granite, has been called a battle of styles, in which Italian-Renaissance, Romanesque and French-Renaissance designs compete with each other to create what looks like a cross between a French chateau and a medieval stone fortress. Even less harmonious is the view of the 19th-century capitol from across the street where the Empire State Plaza, a massive double row of modern, high-rise office towers in a vast field of marble, houses the state's vast bureaucracy.

New York's lack of unity extends beyond the architecture of its capitol buildings. For years, state agencies have called their own shots when it came to information technology, creating a decentralized but parochial approach to computer planning, operations and information sharing, according to Terry Maxwell, executive director of the New York State Forum for Information Resource Management.

The roots to the state's IT problems go back to the early days of computing, when New York's enormous size forced it to become an early adopter of technology to help automate the growing bureaucracy. By the 1980s, the state's largest agencies had nearly 20 years of experience with technology and the infrastructure to go with it. "Decentralization prevailed, particularly in the agencies that had a lot of federal funding," Maxwell explained. "These agencies looked to Washington, rather than the state, in terms of information-management issues."

By the time Gov. George E. Pataki's administration took over in 1995, New York's technological state of affairs was described as fragmented, duplicative, short-sighted and an easy mark for vendors. A central policy for managing, coordinating and controlling IT simply did not exist. In 1996, a report by the newly formed Task Force on Information Resource Management described the situation this way: "State agencies do not share information with one another. In fact, they work hard not to -- each agency collects, authenticates and maintains its own data."

The report described the state as a "bully" to local governments, forcing them to use computer systems without regard to cost or local capabilities. In summary, the report said the current state of technology didn't support the purposes of government. "Functions that span agencies -- intake, eligibility, service delivery, case management, billing, accounting, auditing -- have evolved independently and not necessarily coherently even within the same agency. Until now, we have had no vision for changing this."

Management by Consensus

The man behind the harsh words of the report and in charge of overhauling how the state uses its technology is James G. Natoli, director of the Office of State Operations. The intent of the task force, he recalled, was to get some control over the statewide direction for the deployment of IT. "It was the governor's way of saying that technology will play a pivotal role as the state heads into the next millennium."

The challenge for Natoli, according to Maxwell, was to figure out how to tackle IT issues on an enterprise scale without alienating the traditionally independent agencies. The response was to develop a strategy for IT planning, rather than write a strategic plan full of requirements. The managerial technique for making it work was consensus-building, which Maxwell described as an organic way of conducting enterprise-wide management well-suited to the unique culture of New York's government.

Natoli described it as an "unsexy-but-effective" method of identifying stakeholders, understanding their needs and then working constantly to bring them into the process of statewide planning. "Traditionally, the agencies had been left alone, only to become isolated," he observed. "We simply brought them to the table, had them sit down together and find out for the first time who the other IT directors were within

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor