Washington retained its title as the nations most technically advanced state, ranking first in the Digital State survey for the third year in a row.

by / October 30, 2000
By Steve Towns | Features Editor

Washington retained its title as the nations most technically advanced state, ranking first in the Digital State survey for the third year in a row.

A score of 93 out of 100 points propelled Washington to a first-place finish in the 1999/2000 Digital State survey, which measured progress across eight categories of government information technology.

Washington posted top scores in the surveys social services, digital democracy and management/administration categories, and it ranked among the top 10 states in remaining survey areas.

"Im extremely pleased with the results," said Washington Gov. Gary Locke. "This fortifies all of us to keep going with new ideas for making government more efficient and much more accessible."

Kansas captured second place with a score of 89 points. The state ranked first in individual categories covering taxation/revenue and higher education. Like Washington, it also posted top-10 finishes in the remaining survey areas. Rounding out Digital States top five were Alaska, with 84.1 points; Illinois, with 81.5 points; and Utah, with 80.1 points.

The survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government (the knowledge-management and research division of e.Republic) and the Progress and Freedom Foundation, released results in individual technology categories on a quarterly basis throughout the year. This months final release represents an overall ranking of states based on
their progress across all the survey areas.

Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government, said this years Digital State survey shows the top-scoring states performing the heavy lifting needed to make digital government a reality.

"These states realize how relevant technology is in the New Economy, and theyre going beyond hyperbole and hot air into practical application," she said. "They understand how technology will play out in the future of economic development and how it impacts their viability in a global marketplace."

The Big Picture
Nationwide, states posted an average score of 63 points, just slightly better than the 1998 Digital State surveys average of 61 points. By contrast, 1998s average score represented an improvement of nearly 20 points over the preceding year.

Robinett attributed at least some of the sluggishness to year-2000 issues. "A lot of these states, particularly toward the end of 1999, were in freeze mode because of Y2K. I also think that the score next year should be a little bit higher due to all of the work thats being done in the post-Y2K era," she said.

Nonetheless, states made significant progress in several survey categories, particularly in the development of taxation/revenue and digital-democracy systems. This years average score in the taxation/revenue area -- which measured state efforts to collect taxes and service taxpayers online -- reached 68 points, a nine-point increase over 1998. Similarly, the average score for the digital democracy category -- which surveyed online voting initiatives -- went from 59 points in 1998 to more than 67 points this year.

On the other hand, most states continue to struggle with infusing digital technology into social services programs. The average score of 45 points was the lowest of any survey area. And while several states, most notably Washington (100 points) and Kansas (89 points), posted strong scores in this category, many others found themselves mired in the 20- to 30-point range.

Jeffrey Eisenach, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Progress & Freedom Foundation, called the social services scores a huge disappointment.

"We need to see some leadership in the social services arena that goes beyond the states and starts with Washington [D.C.]," he said. "At every level of the social services infrastructure, you have agencies that are wildly behind the times. You still see a neglect of those kinds of government services thats simply unacceptable."

Indeed, strong, high-level commitment to using digital technology to improve government operations may be the only common thread uniting top-scoring states in this years survey. Digital States top-15 finishers represent a diverse group of jurisdictions, including large, populous states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and rural states like South Dakota, Utah and Idaho. Ironically, states known for being high-tech strongholds in the private sector -- California and Massachusetts, for example -- finished in the bottom half of the pack.

"Leadership is probably the single-most important variable. Its very hard to find patterns that go much beyond that," said Eisenach. "You dont find that big states do better than small states. You dont find that high-tech states do better than others. And I dont think you find a correlation between wealth and performance."

Three in a Row
Washingtons Digital State triple crown confirms that the state is "pushing the edges" of technology in the emerging electronic government arena, said Steve Kolodney, director of Washingtons Department of Information Services.

With little in the way of established measures, Digital States nationwide comparison provides a rare yardstick for e-government progress, he added. "The validation that we get from these types of efforts confirm[s] for our own political leadership that were doing good work compared with whats going on around the rest of the country. And that gives us the room to take the kinds of risks that we need to take if we are going to improve."

Kolodney said his organizations consistent success stems from its cabinet-level authority and strong backing from the governor, as well as a healthy dose of competitive pressure.

"Were in a position of supporting [state agencies] as our customers. They dont have to buy our services," he said. "So we have to prove to them every day that they ought to vote for us by spending their money with us."

Among the states key achievements this year was the creation of a short-range, e-government planning process designed to keep pace with quick-changing Web technology.

"We have committed ourselves to producing a plan which can be accepted or adopted by the state every six months," said Kolodney. "We published a plan in January, and we completed it in June. We will have another six-month plan in September."

These plans are guided by an overall vision for integrating the Internet into daily government operations and service delivery, he added. "We havent simply opted to put Web sites out on our front lawn. We have charted a long-term course."

Change Pays Off
Kansas CIO Don Heiman said a change in his states IT governance structure paid healthy dividends over the period measured by this years survey. Kansas jumped from number 10 in 1998 to number two in the 1999-2000 Digital State rankings.

Kansas created a high-level Information Technology Executive Council in 1998 comprising leaders from state government, local government, higher education and the private sector. Heiman reports to the council and serves as the statewide chief information architect. Under him are chief information technology officers for the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.

A key product of the reorganized leadership structure was the development of a technology architecture that standardized IT policies and practices throughout the state.

"We really formed a tight partnership between the three branches of government, and we flattened our bureaucracy. Youre seeing the result of that," said Heiman. "We have been able to do projects across branches and across agency lines and bring them in successfully. In this day of high integration and high touch to citizens, thats incredibly important."

Just as vital, the new approach has shortened the project approval cycle from several months to a matter of weeks. "That energizes the IT community and it energizes our subject-matter experts," said Heiman. "It allows us to strike at good business deals."

Kansas also created a series of project-management standards and distilled those principles into a 250-page textbook. State project managers now receive 120 hours of classroom instruction and must pass a certification exam. Many Kansas IT vendors have taken the training as well, added Heiman.

"This helps keep everyone on the same page. We have a common language and common reporting standards," he said.

Concurrent with overhauling its technology governance, Kansas has taken a more businesslike approach to IT systems.

"We want IT to contribute to the revenue stream of government. That raises the bar because now youre standing the test of the market," explained Heiman. "That drives not only a lot of our architecture, but also the selection of our projects. Were taking projects that have a fairly high cost/benefit payout -- ROI [return on investment] where the
break-even point occurs at 12-18 months."

Practical Innovation
Like Kansas, Alaska significantly improved its Digital State position. After placing ninth in the 1998 survey, the state rose to third in this years ranking based on the strength of numerous practical e-government offerings.

For instance, Alaska recently unveiled an application that provides a single, online source for all government public notices. The system offers a convenient source for information on meetings, regulatory hearings, attorney general opinions, competitive solicitations and other information.

"Its one-stop shopping for all government public notices," said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer. "That may not sound very sexy, but a lot of the world needs those notices and its very frustrating for individuals and organizations when they cant find that information."

Alaska -- with its sparse population spread over a territory the size of California, Texas and Montana combined -- has a powerful incentive to implement e-government services. Indeed, many of its communities are reachable only by boat or light aircraft, said Ulmer.

Therefore, online applications -- like Alaskas recently installed small business and occupational licensing systems -- offer citizens a huge increase in convenience. "In some states, you can just drive to your local government office and get your work done," said Ulmer. "We have literally hundreds of villages that are not connected by roads. So moving these kinds of transactions, as simple as they may be, to the Web helps erase distance as a barrier to doing business with the government."

Alaskas commitment to Web-based services shows in its second-place finish in Digital States e-commerce category, which measured progress in developing online permitting and licensing systems. Furthermore, the state earned top-10 rankings in categories covering the movement of tax transactions and voter information to the Internet.

Alaskas Telecommunications and Information Technology Council (TIC) played a central role in the states technology success, said Ulmer, who chairs the 20-member council. She credits the TIC -- comprising commissioners of all major state agencies and representatives from higher education and the state Legislature -- with fostering IT innovation and coordination across all sectors of Alaskas state government.

"This has created enterprise-wide thinking about telecommunications and information technology. You dont have a whole bunch of colliding and competing systems," said Ulmer. "[The TIC] allows us to cross-pollinate
good ideas. And it allows us to set standards and have those standards actually enforced."

Rags to Riches
Fourth-ranked Illinois qualifies as this years most-improved state after finishing near the bottom of the 1998 Digital State survey. Chief Technology Officer Mary Barber Reynolds attributed the turnaround to executive leadership, saying Gov. George Ryans unwavering commitment to e-government allowed her to push an agenda that calls for IT
innovation among state agencies.

The high-level technology mandate spurred Illinois to top-10 finishes in key Digital State categories such as electronic commerce, taxation/revenue, and digital democracy. Moreover, the state took second place in the surveys management/administration category, which is seen as a strong predictor of future IT success.

"Since Gov. Ryan took office, we have been relentless in the pursuit of moving government closer to the people. That has given me the mandate to tell agencies that they can no longer live in their silos," said Reynolds. "You have to move across bureaucratic lines, and you have to look at the functions of government and the services that people get.
They couldnt care less what agency they get the services from."

She expects Illinois strong Digital State finish this year to trigger even greater improvement in the future. "State government employees in the past have not been encouraged to do innovative things," said Reynolds. "When you can show success, it really does breed. It gives people confidence to try something else innovative."

Looking Ahead
The Center for Digital Governments Robinett expects the pace of innovation to quicken throughout the country as political leaders grasp the potential benefit of applying new technologies to government operations.

"I think we are seeing that governors are becoming more interested in looking at electronic government for the future of their state, and more CIOs are assuming a higher profile," she said. "In the evolution of electronic government, were really just in the infant stage."

Even states sitting at the top of this years ranking say they have plenty of work remaining. For instance, Heiman and others pointed to security as a key issue for the coming year.

"We are opening our systems up to businesses and the public at the speed of light, and we have to be diligent about how we handle privacy and security," said the Kansas CIO.

Most officials also said they will demand further improvement in online service delivery. "We still have people standing in line for several hours in offices, and that is totally unnecessary in todays world," said Reynolds. "Im not going to be comfortable until we make some huge improvements in internal efficiency and external service delivery."

Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

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