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Washington State's Financial Crisis Jump-Starts Reform (Opinion)

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's shared services directive aims to reduce government costs.

by / April 10, 2009

The "other" Washington has hit the big time. The geographically and alphabetically challenged state that shares a namesake with the nation's capitol has given us Hendrix, Heart, Nirvana, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and, among others. Even so, Washington has always been in other states' shadows. But no more. With an $8 billion budget shortfall, its budget crisis now rivals California on a per capita basis -- both are at $1,240 per person.

Echoing White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's famous formulation, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire launched a broad proposal to "reboot" state government in February. "We must have the courage to grab the opportunity to reform. ... We must use this crisis to make the changes we know are necessary to position our state for the 21st century," she said.

The reboot language isn't accidental. Technology plays a strong role in much of Gregoire's 21st-century government reform package. Her directive instructed Cabinet members to aid a statewide shift to a shared services model, noting other states' cost savings through "the practice of having a single group provide back-office administrative services or customer-facing activities for multiple agencies or departments."

With oversight from the governor's policy and budget staff, the Department of Personnel (DOP) must streamline and create a unified service for human resource management, and the Department of General Administration (GA) must get its arm around facilities, property management and a consolidated and greener motor pool. The Department of Information Services (DIS) is on point for expanding technology-related shared services -- "including consolidation of e-mail services and expansion of the statewide data center."

DIS Communications Director Joanne Todd said the agency looks forward to working with its customers "to identify practical ways to maximize our shared infrastructure in order to reduce expenses while increasing efficiencies." The directive encourages agencies to seek "additional functions" that can be rolled into a shared services model but sets a year-end deadline for establishing the first four shared services centers.

Gregoire's reform plan also calls for cutting the number of boards and commissions in half. She'll preserve the IT governance and oversight board, but the coordinating bodies for the statewide education network and criminal justice integration are among the 150 boards and commissions that will disappear. In an interesting twist, Todd said DIS is considering options to stay engaged with these constituents through "Web conferencing, blogs, surveys, phone conferencing or other ways to solicit thoughtful input."

A small but noteworthy element of the plan marks the return of kiosks more than a decade after a statewide kiosk program was decommissioned. It calls for replacing 25 underused Department of Licensing offices with ATM-style kiosks.

The package is a work in progress. In late October 2008, senior staff in the governor's Executive Policy Office penned a memo on 87 ideas to reform state government, including ideas to require electronic payroll deposits to eliminate the warrant process, move central stores to DIS, combine DIS with the state printer or sell the printer altogether, or combine up to eight administrative support agencies under a single banner -- including what would become the shared services agencies (DIS, DOP, GA) plus the printer, state contracts and organizations that handle public employee health care and retirement.

Separate entries suggest consolidating IT services and personnel under DIS. Interestingly the quick and dirty staff assessment indicates consolidation's time has come and it would improve service. But in the cost savings column beside the item that calls for having "all IT in state government report to DIS," the memo reports an "N" for no.

Eleven days after the state shared services directive was released, Boeing announced the layoff of 700 workers in Washington to help reduce costs. Half of the layoffs will be in Boeing's shared services group. That's the cost of efficiency.


Editor's note: This column appears as FastGov: Shared Services SOS in the April/May issue of Public CIO.


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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.

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