Franchising IT: Standardize Federally Required IT Processes Across States (Opinion)

State IT systems offered via cloud computing or shared contract could lower costs and ensure federal compliance.

by / August 4, 2009

In my time working in and with government, I have seen my share of administration changes. I've been one of the hopeful new folks with enthusiasm and vigor, and I've been in the agency that just braces for the impact. I've seen the holdouts who refuse to believe anything will change, and I've seen the carnage left by some efforts that may not have gone over as intended. It seems with every administrative changeover, the folks in government work all prepare for the same thing, new vision, new Web sites and sometimes new hope.

Watching the first months of the new national administration, no understory has been more fascinating to me than the creation of dual technology positions under the office of the president. I have met both national CTO Aneesh Chopra and CIO Vivek Kundra and know them to be out-of-the-box thinkers with the tenacity and gumption to tackle big issues. I may not have always agreed with their direction, but I have always respected their willingness to boldly venture into areas that most CIOs tend to shy away from.

But their new positions are different. A bold venture, with all the enthusiasm of a new administration, plus the thrill of a position no one has ever held before. No shoes to fill, no precedence to maintain, and open road as far as the eyes can see. It's the kind of job some of us dream of, which made me dream a little. What would I look to accomplish in such a job? I'm sure many of you have, or could, think of ways you would make life better for agencies, for states, for citizens.

So I am offering this article as an open letter to our country's top techies. My hope is that every reader contributes a little something and that through this collection of ideas, we may be able to spur some meaningful dialog about national issues in IT.

I'll get the ball rolling with this offering for the states. Having served as CIO for a short time, and a deputy CIO for a much longer time, I know one of the largest issues facing the states today is the replacement of aging systems, such as unemployment insurance (UI). In some cases, these systems are now pushing 45 years old. In fact, most Medicaid/Medicare systems are a nonstop project management nightmare with no end in sight, and although it looks like we can all breathe a collective sigh of Real ID relief, many states have been waiting to replace their driver's license applications as well.

What do all these have in common? Well first, they are all mature (really old) business processes where we simply enhance what we have done for decades. Second, the federal government, which needs the information at a national level, dictates a lot of what states need to do. Third, agencies have had varying success implementing new systems because of the size and complexity of the work. Finally, they all will cost you over and upward of that $40 million mark that makes budget people choke when times are good, let alone today.

So my idea: time to franchise! Let's take a lesson from our friends under the golden arches at McDonald's. Imagine what it would cost to run 30,000 restaurants worldwide if each was buying its own ingredients for that special sauce, negotiating with its own suppliers and deciding if the McRib will ever be a permanent part of its menu. First, cheeseburgers would be a lot more than the change you can find in your car seat as costs of goods would surely increase when not buying in such bulk. Second, nothing would taste the same from place to place, you just

could not count on the consistency of product across the country. The work done by the highly skilled work force would change as standard procedures give way to more specialized jobs -- in other words, when fries don't come in premeasured bags and a giant beeper doesn't remind you when to pull them out of the fryer, you can't always trust any 16-year-old with a pulse to serve up those salty golden treats.

Truth is, the entire operation changes, and at a corporate level you would only hope the recipes and policies you put out are being followed, that the standards are being upheld and that profits are what each place says they are. It would not -- could not ¬¬-- be the same efficient place we know it as today, and while that might seem like a good thing to some, remember there is a reason billions have been served in the blink of an eye.

Where states do almost the identical processes driven by federal requirements, why can't we franchise? Either through the cloud, or through shared contract, why can't we standardize UI and have the same system at least offered to every state? It would drive down costs, assure compliance, and improve quality and consistency across the country. Just like a franchise, states can buy in at a fraction of what it would cost them to start from scratch and take advantage of all the efficiency benefits immediately.

Now, I'm not naive. Tons of issues would need to be worked through -- everything from the argument of state independence to how do you get your hands around so many state departments who will no doubt argue they do the same thing, just in the most unique of fashions? But the time is right. Hope of a new administration and the elevation of technology at a national scale, and shrinking budgets that are postponing projects we have already postponed too long. I think it could be done. It could radically change the nation and offer better, cheaper services to citizens.

So that's my idea. I encourage you to add yours in the comment space below.

Bill Bott Contributing Writer
Bill Bott is a consulting partner with the Change & Innovation Agency, which helps organizations improve performance. Bott is the former deputy CIO of Missouri. In 2007, he was named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine, and in 2008 was recognized by Government Technology as one of the Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers in the public sector.
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