Someone once said that to understand North Dakota, it's best to imagine a mid-sized city with very, very long streets. The state ranks 17th in land size with nearly 70,000 square miles, but with less than 635,000 residents, is 47th in population. The six states of New England, with more than 13 million people, would fit comfortably in North Dakota's boundaries, with a few thousand square miles to spare.

With so much space and so few residents, North Dakotans have learned that cooperation goes a long way in making up for the lack of people and resources. That's why Gov. John Hoeven integrated North Dakota's universities and government into one administrative network to provide human resources, and financial information and services to users.

Without question, it's the most far-reaching -- and so far only -- system of its kind shared by state government and state universities. If this first and most ambitious stage succeeds, the network could also serve K-12 schools and local governments throughout North Dakota.

The governor's initiative for integrating town and gown in the state isn't new, just ambitious. North Dakota's academic IT community has a tradition of working with their counterparts in Bismarck, the state's capital. "People in North Dakota tend to cooperate really well," said Grant Crawford, CIO of the North Dakota University System, as he explained why collaboration is part of the mindset among state residents. "And they try to spend their money wisely because of the distances involved."

If long distances, small populations and a pioneering spirit of cooperation are recipes for collaborative IT projects between public universities and government, then we shouldn't expect to see too many examples. But given the long odds, many states have moved closer to their academic counterparts in terms of networking, and more are examining the possibilities.

Don't Know Thy Neighbor

States spend a lot of money on networks. In a survey conducted by NASTD, the average data transport budget was a little less than $18 million -- and that's just for state government. Spending on networks for publicly funded universities, colleges and community colleges is enormous (not to mention what the public sector spends on networks for K-12 schools and local government).

The pressure to reduce these costs through consolidation is mounting. The fiscal woes of state budgets have sent legislators and governors scrambling for ways to cut expenses. Not surprisingly, IT and networking budgets have come under intense scrutiny. But efforts to mandate or legislate network and IT collaboration between states and higher education systems have met resistance.

Only a small number of people in higher ed IT have congenial relationships

with their counterparts in state government, according to Crawford, as he assessed the situation nationally. "In the rest of the states, they don't like them, don't work well with them or have been forced to work with them, usually by the legislature," said Crawford. "The result is that the number of states and higher education IT departments that know each other and work together collaboratively are pretty few."

The lack of collaboration also stems from timing, according to David King, executive director of the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System. "State and university partnerships that start from the same point have a better chance of succeeding than those where one party already made a significant investment in their own networks, and then invite another entity to join them or are invited to join with someone else."

Indiana has a jointly operated network shared by state agencies, universities, public schools, libraries and even the state's public broadcasting system. Just about all stakeholders joined at the beginning, according to King, making the network a success in terms of collaboration.

One root problem with government-academic collaboration is that the groups' core missions are fundamentally different. State government data networks must be dependable and reliable because of the business operations they support, according to Steven E. Miller, executive director of Mass Networks Education Partnerships. On the other hand, education networks are quite open to support the free-wheeling and sometimes experimental world of research and education. The result can be a culture clash that can strain the best of intentions.

Come Together

When the business model is right, however, that tension can be advantageous, say some network directors. Delaware CIO Tom Jarrett recently completed the first phase of a collaborative infrastructure project with the University of Deleware. The state needed to diversify its network and add disaster recovery capabilities, but didn't have the money to do the entire project. The university was interested in getting Internet 2 connectivity for research purposes, but also found the cost of such a network prohibitive.

By doing it together, both the state and university could get what they wanted -- a high-speed fiber link -- for half the cost. "We will end up with a payback on this in less than two years, and we're also going to eliminate some expensive leased circuits," said Jarrett. In addition, the state will share some leading edge benefits of Internet 2, which is a testing-ground network for universities to develop advanced Internet technologies, such as telemedicine and virtual labs.

One potential application involves real-time video connectivity for schools with deaf students. "We see this [partnership] as the tip of the iceberg," said Jarrett. "We are meeting with the university folks to find out how they plan to use the technology and what ideas they have for testing."

The best state and university networking partnerships are symbiotic, said King. "The universities use the Net differently from other partners. They tend to push it to the edge and are willing to test new technologies. The results of these research projects can filter down to others who use the network for more traditional services."

But for that kind of symbiosis to occur, all stakeholders must clearly understand how the network is used, otherwise the government's business interests can clash with the research and educational interests of colleges and universities.

The answer lies in the governance structure. Some states set up separate corporations to run the networks. In other states, such as Missouri, the state's university runs the infrastructure for everyone else. Missouri's multipurpose network, known as MOREnet, serves the state's government, schools, hospitals, public libraries and other entities, along with the state's public universities and colleges. While the university administers MOREnet, a council of primary stakeholders watches it, including the state's CIO. While the council doesn't govern MOREnet, it does provide advice, strategic direction and oversight.

"We focus on what we do best," said Bill Mitchell, MOREnet's executive director. "Our competence is with systems administration. We don't do development or content."

That systems administration effort is a $30 million per year affair, which includes connectivity and technical assistance and support for 1,100 network sites. MOREnet doesn't run the networks used by the state's agencies, but provides the state with its gateway to the Internet through a large data pipe. "We do the systems administration and technical support for the servers the state uses for its Web portal," explained Mitchell.

By sticking to its mission of providing Internet connectivity (including Internet 2 for the University of Missouri) and support, MOREnet can serve a wide range of public-sector institutions in the state and at low cost to taxpayers. While MOREnet's budget hasn't been cut, it has stayed flat, yet demand is constantly growing. "Our current challenge is how do we handle a 60 percent to 80 percent annual growth rate in utilization with a flat budget," said Mitchell.

The response has come in the form of aggressive rebidding of services that has allowed MOREnet to quadruple the size of its backbone while lowering fees. "We accomplished that through economies of scale that brought us significant buying power to the table, and we worked the competition," he added. In addition, Mitchell took advantage of the fact that there's a lot of excess networking capacity on the market today and vendors are hungry for business.

Divided Apps

If sharing networking infrastructure between a state and its universities can sometimes be a delicate matter involving cultural differences, imagine what it must be like to share an application. That's the case in North Dakota, which is spending $7.5 million so the state and its university system can both use an integrated HR and finance system running on software from PeopleSoft.

The challenge, according to Crawford, is figuring out all the details for long-term success. "It really is a governance issue," he said. "If the two sides don't agree on something, who do you complain to and how do you resolve the problem?"

Along with governance, harmonizing business practices between the state and university system is another challenge for Crawford and his counterpart Curtis Wolfe, in Bismarck. "Financially, higher education operates in a more complex environment than the state does, because we have more complex resources, dollars are painted different colors and reporting requirements are different," explained Crawford. The same goes for HR.

The situation is more complex because, as every CIO knows, enterprise projects are as much about change management as they are about IT implementation. "While the project involves software, it's the decision to get there that's important," said Crawford, referring to the system's impact on culture and business practices. Crawford finds he has to build up resources and knowledge from scratch for HR -- something the state's university system didn't have before the project began.

But once the project is completed, the state will have a single, top-of-the-line enterprise HR and financial system for the state and all public universities and colleges in North Dakota for less than the cost of two separate systems. The Web-based system will provide schools and students with the latest online services for admissions, registration, transcripts and a host of HR and financial practices. The state will get the latest software tools to manage financial and employee benefits information, plus much more.

Backing all of this up will be the state's and university system's two data centers, which are underpinned by the single network shared by both institutions.

Crawford said the project makes sense, but said he isn't sure how easy it would be to emulate elsewhere. "We are small -- only 640,000 people -- so it makes it easier to do something like this," he said. "I don't know how well it would replicate elsewhere, but this is a good place to start."

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.