State-level e-government in fits and starts

WASHINGTON — With a new administration days away from taking office, much of the talk about open, e-government has been at the federal level.

But in a practical sense, a great many of the policies that affect people’s everyday lives are made by state and local governments.

Here at the annual tech-policy conference of the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Caucus, a private-sector coalition that advises legislators on Internet issues, Virginia’s secretary of technology was on hand to discuss some of the challenges and successes of technology initiatives on the state level.

“We at the states and the local level find ourselves translating much of the work you all do on Internet issues into actual initiatives that we can govern,” Aneesh Paul Chopra told an audience of Hill staffers, regulators and others here at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

Working with Gov. Tim Kaine, Chopra said he has been engaged in developing an ambitious agenda aiming to use “technology as a way to transform our overall approach to governing.”

But state governments’ tech initiatives are often hindered by arcane accounting rules governing the allocation of federal funds, he said.

“The foundation of open government was to make sure that we have in place a modern, more robust, more enterprise approach to IT infrastructure,” Chopra said. “If Microsoft, Google and all those folks can put all their applications on the cloud, and can run them in these mega, mega-datacenters, you’d think government would have the ability to do the same thing and could figure out the accounting rules, but the accounting folks haven’t quite gotten together with the tech folks.”

Funding shortages are also a chronic issue, particularly as states are feeling the pinch from the economic downturn.

“In a world where you have to choose between funding more healthcare services or social services or cops on the ground, frankly getting $300 million in a one-time shot for IT probably wasn’t going to happen,” Chopra said.

Nevertheless, he said that Virginia has scored some successes using a model of public-private partnership, where the state enlists the services of an IT firm to advance its tech agenda. Virginia recently partnered with Northrup Grumman to overhaul its state computer systems. The firm signed a 10-year deal to replace government PCs, implement and manage cyber security and oversee other aspects of the state’s IT operations.

Operating on a “shoestring budget,” Virginia has had to do some “horse-trading” to strike deals with its partners in the private sector. In the case of Northrup Grumman, the firm agreed to shoulder the up-front costs of the project in exchange for a flat annual payment of the technology line items in the state’s budget.

A central aspect to the technology push of government at all levels is modernizing and streamlining their databases. Many agencies still operate legacy systems, and databases are often set up so that information is not interoperable, owing to privacy concerns and other issues.

“Open government first and foremost begins with an open and more modern IT infrastructure,” Chopra said. “We have all this data, we just can’t mine it, because the information is siloed.”

For instance, Chopra said he would like to be able to correlate data about children’s reading-test scores with their parents’ employment data.

“It makes making better, data-driven decisions very, very difficult.”

Virginia, along with other states, has partnered with Google to improve the availability of government data on the Web by adopting the site-map protocol to allow the search giant to crawl the sites of its roughly 90 agencies.

“Frankly, it became a lot easier to find stuff,” Chopra said.

The state has also struck an agreement with Microsoft to bring its technology-training academy to the state. Virginia is trying to overhaul its graduate equivalency degree (GED) program to focus more on technical skills. The idea of a high-school dropout scoring a job in IT is “laughable,” Chopra said. Yet that is exactly what Virginia is trying to do.

In February, the state plans to enroll its first 30 students in the Plugged In program, where they will learn technical skills that aim to land them a spot in the 21st century economy. Northrup Grumman has agreed to give each person who graduates from the program an interview for an entry-level IT position. Chopra said there is a high likelihood that most will get hired.

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