Academic Innovation

The private sector doesn't have a corner on original thinking. Here's how one jurisdiction fostered innovation through a unique school for technology.

by / April 28, 2003
On a spring day in 1999, international protocol met Internet protocol in Seattle. Government officials from 50 nations squeezed into an overflowing banquet hall in an otherwise carefully choreographed event. A steady stream of limousines, taxis and ride-share vans dropped off delegates all morning. They were mostly suits -- with a smattering of geeks -- converging on a downtown hotel for the Microsoft Government Leaders' Conference.

They were drawn by the promise of harnessing a new "digital nervous system [to] ... enhance the speed and efficiency of government" -- a welcome contrast to the hurry-up-and-wait countdown to the Y2K rollover.

"Mr. Governor, government must go digital," quipped Micosoft Chairman Bill Gates to home state Gov. Gary Locke at the opening of the global gathering of government officials. The comment was characteristically Gatesian -- equal parts observation, prophesy and imperative. The words rang out of the Seattle ballroom and reverberated down to the state Capitol. Locke's response, delivered to a gathering of senior state managers a few months later, was simple and direct: "If they can do it Redmond, we can do it in Olympia."

To those of us who counted ourselves as converts to digital government, the governor's message was music to our ears -- but we were in the minority. The polite but tepid majority response to his challenge was from unregenerate program managers who had budget problems, personnel problems and old technology problems. Likewise, many downcast agency IT directors believed their respective agencies were heavily reliant on poorly documented, aging systems that were hard coded in a world that now demanded a fluid response. Some harbored dreams of ERP, which would put old systems out of their misery. Others fiercely defended the unique ability of legacy systems to do the heavy lifting of government. Most appeared leery of what they didn't know about the Internet and were reluctant to extend the value of their mission-critical systems through what they characterized as light-weight Internet applications.

The mood also was flavored with cynicism over earlier broken promises about technology that left many disappointed, and worse, hoodwinked. They would not be fooled again. Nor, paradoxically, did they want to be left behind. A ready consensus? Not a chance. The making of a critical mass to change the way the state did government? Not yet.

Three Men and a Baby
If this was the birth of a new way of doing government, three men really wanted this baby. Locke -- no stranger to the Microsoft campus or other technology-laden environments in the Northwest's silicon forest -- was eager to emulate results the private sector was beginning to see in managing supply chains and other internal processes. He had seen the future and wanted to take it back with him to Olympia -- a point not lost on then-Chief of Staff Joe Dear, who also was devoted to effective and efficient government. Dear's intent was clear: The administration was "moving from process to results," and digital government held the greatest promise among available options to deliver results quickly. The trio was completed by Steve Kolodney, returning from a brief sabbatical at the Center for Digital Government to serve again as state CIO and Cabinet-level director of the Department of Information Services (DIS).

That's where we came in. We were the people of DIS, a public agency with a stronger bench of technological, legal and policy talent than you would have expected at the height of dot-com mania. In a shoebox-sized conference room, the six-member executive team began fleshing out this new experiment in government modernization. This de facto war room was sandwiched between Kolodney's office and mine -- that of the deputy director. The conference room's d
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.