The Other Bush

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush drives climate of change.

by / August 1, 2001 0
I had just sat down with Gov. Jeb Bush in his wood-paneled office when I remarked that, following our interview, Id like to check out the digital picture frame I heard he has on his desk. Without a moments hesitation, the governor jumped up and beckoned me to follow him to his "real office." I trailed him into a small anteroom off the official digs, filled with family pictures, dozens of toys (including 10 stuffed manatees) and stacks of budget documents.

Sitting atop the Florida governors L-shaped desk is an IBM ThinkPad, a sleek, 19-inch flatscreen LCD monitor and a Cieva digital picture frame that he uses to exchange digital photos with his famous parents and other friends and relatives. The first picture in todays slide show is of his mom.

The governor - just "Jeb" to friends and political foes alike - has for years used technology extensively in his daily life. He regularly gives out his private e-mail address, meaning anyone listening to him on a radio call-in show has about the same electronic access to him as his brother and father, our current and former presidents.

In Florida, Bush is without question the main driver and cheerleader of the states electronic government program. A top aide admitted that because the governor knows more about technology than all but two or three of his senior staff, he occasionally has to tutor them on technology subjects, such as the virtues of enterprise resource planning.

Although Bush has his critics, no one disputes his commitment to overhauling state government. "He looks at government like a big dysfunctional business," said a longtime aide. "Some people incorrectly interpret his zeal to reform government as animus toward government."

Bush is a policy wonk extraordinaire, reading think tank studies and policy books like other people read murder mysteries and romance novels. After reading something particularly enlightening, he often assigns it to his senior staff - and has been known to give pop quizzes. He once sent a special technology issue of Forbes magazine to all his senior staffers with a note: "Are we using technology as well as we can? Can you think of ways you can use technology better to improve your operations?"

Soon after coming into office, Bush laid out a series of what he calls "BHAGs;" or "Big Hairy Audacious Goals." In just two and half years as governor, Bush has revamped affirmative action, pushed through far-ranging education reforms, cut taxes by over $1 billion, taken on civil service reform, reduced the state workforce by about 5 percent and changed the way the state acquires and manages technology - and he says hes just getting started.

His upcoming race for re-election - certain to be one of the more closely watched races next year - will determine whether Florida citizens are ready to let Bush continue the relentless pace of change.

Government Technology: Youve been using e-mail since the early 1990s, when few politicians even knew what e-mail was. To what do you attribute this interest?

Bush: Its been a personal productivity tool for me. I have a sense of urgency about changing things, and Ive found that, as technology advances, Ive been increasingly productive along with it. I give out my e-mail address to people; its not the government e-mail address, although thats easier now too with myflorida.com. I give out my private e-mail in speeches - I tell people to write to me.

GT: And you dont have another private e-mail account?

Bush: No, thats it. Since 2:00, Ive received 48 e-mails and I probably get 300 a day. I read them. I dont write novels back to people, but its a way to stay connected, a way to listen, a way to manage. I use it as a means to do my job. I try to stay focused on the big picture, but also stay focused on the details. With most leadership models, youre required to pick one or the other. I think technology allows you to do both.

GT: Governments around the world have been talking about reform and reinvention for more than a decade. How does government need to change to better serve the citizen in the 21st century and how does technology tie into that?

Bush: It requires leadership, because change in a public setting is more difficult than in a competitive marketplace. The culture begins to emerge in government, that the government is the master rather than the servant. You dont have that luxury in a private, more competitive market.

Were the largest service enterprise in our state. We have a $51 billion budget, we employ 120,000 people, and the services we provide are extraordinarily important to a lot of people. The folks we serve are deserving of the kind of service they would get if they were shopping at Target or Wal-Mart, or making a long distance call with Sprint or AT&T, or if they go to a doctor. Theres an expectation of a level of quality [for] that service and price. With leadership you can begin the process of changing that culture to move toward that [goal]. And technology is critical; you cant provide better services without technology. Its the driver for change and better services.

GT: ATMs are error-free 99.999 percent of the time, yet election machine error rates were up to 5 percent across the country in the last election. Why are we still using 40-year old technology in our elections?

Bush: Were not. In Florida, were using 20-year old technology [laughs]. We had acceptance of 100-year old technology in most parts of the country, and Florida is one of the first states to eliminate the older technologies and have a baseline that is probably 20 years old, but allows for touchscreen technology. Many of the counties are going to move to that immediately. The standard now is an optical scanning device. It is not the most advanced thing in the world, but it works, and it lessens error rates.

GT: You formed a task force to modernize elections and the Legislature passed an election reform bill based on the task force recommendations. What role is technology going to play in fixing the problems from the last election?

Bush: The machines will eliminate a significant percentage of undervotes and overvotes, which was the principle problem. Since I was 18 years old, Ive always voted with the punch card. In Texas they had it, as well - I think it is important to lessen human error, while still recognizing that the voters have the ultimate responsibility for their voting decisions. But people do make mistakes, and if machines can allow you to correct that mistake, thats a good thing.

GT: With all the technological changes enabling personalization and customization of services, including learning, will technology start to change the terms of the education debate?

Bush: I hope so. Florida State University is investing significant dollars in its online capacity. We have this big bubble or bulge of kids going through the K-12 system who will make it out of high school and into higher education. And I think online education will expand capacity without having to build brick and mortar, which is very expensive.

We have a Florida Online High School that is one of the leaders in the country. We have over 10,000 students, and its growing pretty dramatically. That serves full-time students as well as students in the underserved areas. For example, in the rural areas of our state, I think there are 17 counties that dont have any advanced placement courses. As part of our "One Florida" initiative, weve increased funding for AP courses to attract African-American and Hispanic students, particularly in the rural areas. And its working. Because of that, theyre going to college now.

GT: Will this help kids learn more at their own pace for a more personalized and customized education?

Bush: This year were going to invest in an FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test) diagnostic tool. The idea would be that you could go on myflorida.com, click on education, click on some name - not sure what well call it yet - for FCAT diagnostic and youll see third through 10th grade math, reading and writing. Youll be able to determine where your child is. You can tell what grade level youre at, where you need remediation [and] where youre weak, and it will make suggestions on how to go about providing tools for teachers and parents to improve that.

The second element is to - through the Internet - provide strategies for teaching, so kids are not in classes where teachers are teaching to the test, but instead theyre teaching to the standards. And theyre doing so in a way that is rich and rigorous and fulfilling. Technology would be the tool.

Teachers in the classroom will become more like facilitators and they can use these resources on the Internet that are just awesome. The resources are already there, but arent packaged, and thats part of the problem in education. Its one of those institutions that is not in a competitive marketplace, so its not quick to respond to consumer needs. But were not going to a purely competitive marketplace.

Were [also] going to adopt Tom Luces "Just For Kids" idea. In Texas, the Just for Kids site allows a parent to compare test scores of individual campuses with a group of schools with similar demographic characteristics.

The idea is you can go to the Internet and see how your school is doing. When we test right now, we test and the grade is 310. That doesnt mean anything - 310 what? So next year were going to provide a grade-level equivalent. If youre in third grade and you did 310 in the reading, and you dont have any context, we will convert that to 3.5, so mom will know how the school is doing and how her child is doing. And if the child is way ahead of the standards, then she can push to have that kid taught at a faster pace. And if the child is behind, she wont tolerate the idea of social promotion. These tools will empower parents to become teachers of their kids, and active agents for them, to be able to move to a child-centered system.

GT: I want to now talk about your e-budget initiative. Skeptics would say that few citizens are really interested in budgets, so why go through the trouble of making it user friendly on the Web? Agencies, legislators and other interests didnt want that detailed information out there on the Web. Will it somehow improve governance?

Bush: [Its] the combination of technology and systemic reform that matters. Unit costs and performance criteria, combined with technology, allow citizens to become partners in the policy debate. They can make the process more open and transparent. It isnt just putting it on the Web, its changing how you make it work.

For example, in the traditional budget, you have the department of X and inside that there will be the division of Y and the bureau of Z and the section of A. Its all input driven. It would be "salaries," "rent," "telephones," "
travel." Now its by policy, so citizens and policymakers know how much we spend on drug treatment. That will be partly salary, partly travel, etc. And then we have outcomes. This is still all a work in progress, but the idea would be we invest $50 million in drug treatment programs across the state. Ultimately we want to line item that down to each drug treatment facility with what our contracted outcome measures are, so that we will know and citizens will know how much it will cost for a [person to successfully complete] the drug treatment program.

GT: Youre putting your calendar and other cabinet members calendars on the Web. Are you worried that all of this transparency - where people can see completely into state government, down to unit cost - is making research a lot easier for your opponent in your next campaign? Isnt that why other politicians dont exactly embrace such high levels of transparency?

Bush: There is a risk of being open, but - its well worth the risk, because if you can extract the cost of the delivery of these really important services, you can reinvest them into the people that you want to serve. A lot of this is just to get people to realize there are better ways of delivering services. Thats the end result. Has everybody bought into this? No. Along with this weve had career Civil Service reform and reforms in policies that were politically correct at the time but hadnt worked, and weve challenged them. So its the combination of all of this that creates the climate where change will benefit people.

William D. Eggers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is writing a book on how digital technology is transforming public institutions.
William D. Eggers Contributing Writer