Every good project, idea or innovation needs a champion to take it from concept to reality. This axiom consistently applies to the development of successful digital government programs and policies. Whether by decree or consensus, the implementation of technology in the public sector has required ongoing and active executive support.
California's Web site, which has won several awards over the past year, is just one example of what happens when the word comes down from the top. Arun Baheti, the state's director of e-government in the Governor's Office and key driver of the state's portal development, freely admits his boss was the catalyst. "There's nothing like an executive order to get your attention," Baheti said after winning the Best of the Web award. "The governor said he didn't just want the best government Web site, but the best Web site, period."
Other leading state and local governments issue similar credits. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was a steadfast champion of information technology; Texas CIO Carolyn Purcell has enjoyed the support of key legislators and State Auditor Larry Alwin, who actively advocated for the creation of an empowered CIO post; Washington state made award-winning strides with the support of Gov. Gary Locke; and elected officials in Fairfax County, Va., fostered an IT environment that has made the county a "poster child" for local e-government.
Not all jurisdictions have such pro-active environments. In state government, elected officials are often preoccupied with other matters -- matters that ultimately grasp the attention of voters during election cycles. In some locales, officials are unaware of the benefits of technology and are not interested in learning. Delegate Joe May, a five-term member of the Virginia State Assembly, who has been a sometimes-lonely advocate for e-government, laments the reluctance of his colleagues to embrace the potential of technology.
"Some of our IT funding was killed in this year's budget," May said. "Unfortunately some of my peers looked to that item much more quickly than I would have liked because e-gov is really materializing in Virginia. Frankly, the benefits of e-gov could be passing us by because we haven't been as quick to embrace it as we should be."
The story is even more poignant in some local governments where budgets are so tight and concerns so immediate, that technology might appear frivolous. However, some cities that have braved the IT frontier have discovered efficiencies, savings and customer satisfaction that address pressing challenges and create new solutions to old problems.
Colorado Springs took first place in the 2001 Digital Cities Survey, sponsored by the Center for Digital Government, the knowledge-management and research division of e.Republic, and Government Technology. Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace admits that Colorado Springs is unique in the digital government universe. "Our community is a big-time user of technology," she said. "We have a well-connected community and, in some ways, there was a demand for us to be more responsive to our citizens."
The city has an IT budget of approximately $6.4 million -- about one-fifth of the city's annual overall budget. According to a report released by the American Electronics Association in 2000, 76 percent of all Colorado Springs households own a computer. Internet use in the city was surpassed only by San Jose, Calif., in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Charles Doolittle, the city's CIO, said he has enjoyed strong support from the city council, which favors enterprise-wide coordination of IT.
The city Web site features numerous services, including the option to pay for certain permits, parking tickets and bus passes; information about airport traffic, council meeting agendas and minutes; and a personalized "CityWire" where citizens can request specific information from government.
Makepeace has been around to watch the evolution of e-government. After 12 years on the city council, she was elected mayor in 1997. "When we first got started buying computers for elected officials, the younger people were open. But there was a bit of an age divide - a reluctance of the older elected officials to get a computer and e-mail addresses."
Eventually, increased exposure to technology won the council's approval and spread to the homes of constituents. The program began in earnest when the former city manager created a department for information technology with a director at its head. "That to me was the key," Makepeace remembered. "It has to be somebody's job. And, it takes a dedicated staff."
The mayor then proffered the suggestion of a paperless council and the city began accelerating e-government. After the city held its first electronic city hall meeting for the annual budget, the benefits became clear. Residents were able to interact with the council, sending e-mails with their responses and suggestions as budget deliberations took place. "Across the nation we are concerned about people not being engaged," Makepeace said. "We need to open up as many channels to government as possible. To me, it is one more way to get information out to our citizens. Information is the number one thing. The next level is to save citizens some time, and the other piece is to allow them to communicate with us."
With the city's executive staff and policy-makers sold on the value of technology, Makepeace hasn't found herself fighting an uphill battle. However, she is aware that not all cities are so tech savvy. "Someday soon, an elected official who has been in office a long time will encounter an upstart with a computer who has been campaigning and the traditional official won't know what's happened. Just because we are elected officials doesn't mean we can't, or shouldn't, change," she observed.
She suggests that cities approach e-government as an educational process and look at how some existing problems might be solved through technology. "If I were talking to a council that hadn't taken the first step, I would look at things they were trying to deal with and show them some concrete things that could be done," she said. "We need to be responsive to citizens if we want them to be involved."
That politicians are often preoccupied with getting re-elected is not news. But the concept that their support of e-government might someday become a campaign issue is a dawning realization. Information on campaigns, voter involvement in the electoral process and information on lawmakers is now readily available to the public via the Internet. As a result, some governments are now conducting special briefing sessions on information technology for elected officials and their staffers.
Legislators in Louisiana, where laptops and the Internet are everyday tools in both legislative chambers, already understand that message. According to Sen. Kip Holden, technology has changed the governing process. "It plays a dual role. We can see amendments as they are written and can use the system to see when our bills are coming up," he explained. "But the public's side is that they can now e-mail legislators as we are working for them."
Holden has been an ardent supporter of e-government and said he believes top leadership must be committed to change. But, if a chief executive does not share the sense of urgency about e-government, other elected officials should lead the way. "The pressure might have to come from members of the legislature telling success stories from across the country and reprioritizing the state's budget," he suggested.
Among leading digital states and their CIOs, there is a keen awareness of the importance of executive support. Phillip Windley, who assumed Utah's top IT post just over a year ago, freely admits that Gov. Mike Leavitt's technology leadership was critical. "I don't think I would have taken the job without knowing I had that kind of support," Windley said. "It is very difficult to drive change in an organization of this size without executive support. And then you add the fact that it is government and that makes it even more difficult."
The state's technology initiatives have also benefited from important legislative advocacy, according to Windley. The co-chairs of the information technology commission -- Sen. David Steele and Rep. Rich Sidoway -- have been spokesmen for many of the state's IT initiatives. "They have been very helpful because they understand the issues," Windley said. "There are always going to be people who don't understand things as well as others. It's a big job to try and educate them."
Windley also looked to a higher authority. "Frequently, I have relied on the governor to carry some of the weight," he said, referring to changes that sometimes dig deep into government culture.
Virginia's May, whose tenure has spanned three governors, had the same experience. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore and former Secretary of Technology Don Upson were avid champions of e-government when some of the more conservative members of the legislature tended to focus on traditional issues
May is confident about the future of technology in Virginia under the new administration. "Secretary Upson was breaking new ground, inventing the job as he went," he said. "The new secretary and governor come in with backgrounds in technology and e-gov, and can pick up where the previous administration left off. They have a running start and their combined expertise is very encouraging."
A governor's support definitely gets the attention of cabinet members and department directors. Windley explained that for real transformation to occur, the message must travel further. "We've had real good response to our e-gov initiative and a lot of that is because the governor has gone to our cabinet meetings," he said. "Then we go out to department staff and meet with senior management to see that their goals are in context. We work hard to get the message out to management in state government."
Although the use of technology has been more visible at the state level, many people agree that government is most immediate and relevant at the local level. People interact far more frequently with city and county officials on daily business than they do with larger entities. In fact, Upson believes that community portals should become a primary entry point to all electronic government services. Therefore, implementing technology at the county and city levels becomes critical to the transformations envisioned for the Information Age.
Steve Jennings, CIO of Harris County, Texas, heads up an e-government effort that is unusual in both scope and resources. "It is exciting for us because we have savvy people," he said. "If you didn't have them you'd be running into obstacles and have to convince and win people. The nice part is that our commissioners aren't afraid of technology."
Harris County, with 3.4 million people, rivals some state populations. It is a community with strong adoption of computer and Internet use and, importantly, commissioners who enthusiastically use technology to deliver services to citizens. Not only does the county have the expertise, it also has support from its financial officers who advocate for funding.
Still, there are challenges, even in this keen environment. Jennings said there has been a deliberate plan to engage officials in the county's IT strategy. "You do it at the department head and elected officials level, not below, because then you get into turf issues. You have to align the technology to accomplish goals," he observed.
To bridge some of these traditional boundaries, the county established a "2010 Commission" where elected officials and department leaders consider the future state of technology. Questions about how the internal culture and structure must change to reach this 2010 vision give participants plenty of time and perspective, without the pressure to implement immediate changes.
Steve Steinbrecher, CIO of Contra Costa County, Calif., used another strategy to get the attention of lawmakers. Reasoning that a good business case for e-government could make sense to even the most techno-phobic public official, Steinbrecher crunched some numbers about business continuity. "There are about 9,000 people who work for the county," he said. "The average, loaded staff salary is about $50 an hour. If our data center was down it would cost the county more than $450,000 an hour."
Along with this bottom-line pitch, Steinbrecher, like many CIOs, finds himself spreading the IT gospel.
"The term I use is being an Amway salesman," he joked. "I keep going back and trying to educate them. It probably took me three years to get where I am today. Other things like up time and payroll, people understand very clearly. I try to pick out items that are mission critical like disaster recovery and business continuity."
Leadership is critical to building successful e-government in each jurisdiction, regardless of budgets or demographics. "You have to analyze the environment. There are places head and shoulders above us," Jennings said. "And size has a lot to do with it. You will find that smaller communities of under a million people can do things better, especially if you have the money."
Jennings suggests that local leaders assess their resources and goals. "You have to look at the economy, look at what advice you can give and get an understanding of how tech savvy they are," he said. "Look at it like a consultant. How can you align with them and make their vision achievable? Technology is not a product or a service. It just enables you to deliver those things. One size definitely does not fit all."