The Empire State Strikes Back

New York State's agencies have always embraced technology

by / August 31, 1999
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 the state. From there, we built an advisory council around the directors."

In 1997, Natoli converted the task force into the Office for Technology (OFT) to plan and coordinate the state's IT investments and to work with the advisory council. With a staff of 22 and a budget of just over $100 million, OFT has the unenviable tasks of squeezing financial efficiencies out of the state's computers, improving relations between the state and local governments concerning IT, and making it easier for citizens and the private sector to do business with New York.

By statute, the director of OFT is the state's chief information officer. But Cameron Thomas, OFT's first director, shied away from using the title, fearing it might intimidate the agencies' IT directors and derail the consensus-building approach to setting policy and operations. William Pelgrin is the acting director, but a search is under way to find a permanent replacement for Thomas.

As proof that the state is moving in the right direction, Natoli singled out three major projects indicative of the shift toward enterprise information management. First, the state issued a policy regarding technology standards. For the first time, New York has statewide standards governing everything from PCs and operating systems to programming languages and imaging components. Second, the state is consolidating 24 data centers into a single operation. Once the work is completed in less than two years, the new data center is expected to generate significant savings.

Third, the state is installing a statewide telecommunications network -- an intranet based on Internet protocols -- to replace the many independent, fragmented and costly networks that crisscross the technology map. By consolidating existing services and laying fiber-optic cables for high-speed access, the state will have a more reliable data, voice and video communications system than before, but at a much lower cost to the taxpayer.

Fragmented Policies and Fiefdoms

As the state forges ahead with its low-key approach to centralizing, coordinating and managing IT in government, how is it handling some of the key IT issues that face government today? As the third-largest state in the country, New York could be a leader when it comes to technology, but until now, little has been known about its strategies and policies.

Clearly, the past, with its fragmented IT policies and fiefdoms, has hurt the state's stature. Earlier this year, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University gave the state a mediocre "C" grade for its management of information technology. Efforts to remediate the Y2K bug have also drained the state's limited resources, leaving little for innovative projects or for enacting more sweeping changes. And while there's no evidence that the administration's battles with the Legislature have stifled IT innovation, the fact that for the 15th year in a row the New York Assembly failed to pass the budget on time doesn't help.

Of major concern is the ongoing loss of skilled workers and what to do about it. By 1996, the state reported it had lost 12 percent of its IT staff in a three-year period, including more than 10 percent in network support and 9.5 percent in systems maintenance. During that same period, the state has been unable to find young people with new skills, hiring fewer than 200 IT staff people. The net result has been troubling: The state's IT workforce has lost both its most experienced and its youngest members, leaving 41 percent of the employees between 40 and 49 years of age.

Natoli attributed the lack of a response to the fact that the state has had to focus heavily on Y2K. "Once we get beyond Y2K, we anticipate taking a critical look at projects that were put into abeyance," he said. Now that the state has brought 99 percent of its mission-critical systems into compliance for Y2K, the day when workforce problems can be addressed is fast approaching.

According to Natoli, the state is looking to implement a project-management training program. Between the Y2K crisis and the growing rash of big-system failures, government IT chiefs have become convinced about the need to improve project-management skills and leadership. The plan is to train workers in such a way that they can handle project management for multiple agencies, rather than have them stay in one place. In addition, OFT wants to offer IT training to senior staff in agencies so they can better understand the benefits of technology and know what questions to ask when it comes to making major funding decisions.

Maxwell likes the project-management training program and sees it as a way to bring non-IT people into a technology career path. "It's a good first step. But more is required, such as the reforming of civil service," he said. "That's going to be the big thing over the next four to five years." For example, New York uses a whopping 5,000 job titles in its civil service. That's down from more than 6,000 just a few years ago, but still way too many.

If workforce issues appear daunting and long term, then resolving state-local relations has been a breeze by comparison. The state's strong-arm tactics with local governments is a legacy the Pataki administration has moved quickly to end. According to Natoli, the days when a county worker might have three different computer terminals on his desktop from three different state agencies are fading fast. Mandates have been replaced by partnerships.

"It's more than talk," said Natoli. "They have input on new applications and if they have a need for some of the data that we collect, they have access to it." Part of the change is stipulated in a "local government etiquette policy" that state agencies must follow. More concretely, local governments sit on a number of state IT taskforces and committees, including 50-percent representation on the council for the intranet project. According to Natoli, local participation is real, rather than simply window dressing. "They make decisions," he added.

Political, Technological Challenges

Meanwhile, the state has invested in bread-and-butter technologies ranging from document imaging and geographic information systems to video conferencing and enterprise resource planning systems. As a result, the state has increased the number of business-oriented applications, but without the kind of duplication of effort of the past.

The improvements in technology haven't gone unnoticed in the Legislature. "I think Pataki has kept the state up with technology and has helped to move the state into the Information Age," said Assemblyman Albert Vann. But the lawmaker from Brooklyn criticized the governor's administration for its lack of communication with the Legislature, leading to delays on the budget and unresolved policy initiatives, such as civil-service reform.

Unfortunately, Vann, who has spearheaded a number of technology and telecommunications-related projects, is one of the few legislators to have taken the time to champion automation in Albany. The rest of the Legislature has been criticized for its lack of technological savvy. For instance, there's no legislative committee on technology, unusual for a state of New York's size, according to Maxwell.

Outside the political maelstrom, Natoli and OFT are marshaling their precious resources to take on the next big challenge: electronic commerce. OFT recently drafted the Omnibus Technology Act, a bill that has already passed the Senate and is pending in the Assembly. It would authorize -- but not mandate -- the use of electronic signatures and electronic records.

Meanwhile, the work keeps piling up. Of growing concern is how Americans' view of government service is changing in the age of the Internet. "I think that there's going to be pressure from customer expectations around the Internet that will [affect] the move toward," said Maxwell. "In addition, there are challenges to face in the education sector and the whole Internet taxation issue."

Natoli concurred that citizen expectations will push the state's vision for the next three years or so. But he's confident New York is headed in the right direction, thanks to the governor. "Governor Pataki's interest and support for not only our organization but how we use technology to do business in the state has been incredible," he said. "It's been a great three years so far."

Tod Newcombe is author of "Electronic Commerce: A Guide for Public Officials," published by Government Technology Press.
Tod Newcombe Features Editor