Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stimulating Technology: The Award For Best Special Effects Goes to... (corrected)

Reposted from GOVERNING's blog

Forget the Hollywood red carpet at tonight's Oscars ceremony. The best spot for political star gazing today was the J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, scene of the National Governors Association's winter meeting. When I stopped there this morning to have coffee with a state official who was in town for the gathering, it was hard to go more than a few feet without passing a governor. There was New Jersey's Jon Corzine and his impressive entourage on the escalator -- followed shortly by Vermont's Jim Douglas, NGA's unaccompanied vice chair. Also solo was Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, dressed in fleece and tennis shoes, on her way the hotel Starbucks before the morning workshops began. Downstairs, in the dining room, NGA chairman Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania held court at a small power breakfast.

Just like Hollywood, the less-recognizable players who work behind the scenes wield considerable influence over what we see on the big screen of American government. These days that often means the special effects wizards from the community of big government technology vendors. So I was not at all surprised to run into senior executives from the public sector groups at companies such as Microsoft and Oracle working the crowd.

Anyone who questions how important technology is in government today just needs to glance at NGA's list of 114 corporate fellows. Each companies' "$20,000 contribution allows NGA to leverage your industry expertise and utilize your company as an intellectual resource for the work done by the NGA Center for Best Practices," the association's Web site explains. More than a quarter of those corporate fellows (at least 30 companies, by my count) provide technology and telecom services and advice to government.

Much like the awards for the most technical categories at the Oscars, tech issues were not exactly prominent on the governors' agenda for the three-day meeting, with one speaker scheduled for Monday afternoon's closing plenary session. But many of the companies in attendance were particularly interested in hearing the governors' take on the technological implications of the recently enacted $787 billion economic stimulus package.

Those implications also were much on the mind of two senior officials representing the National Association of State Chief Information Officers -- Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna, the organization's current president, and Pamela Richardson Walker, NASCIO's new director of governmental affairs in Washington. (Pam came from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which worked closely with NGA and NASCIO on issues related to the 2005 REAL ID law; she also is an alum of Congressional Quarterly, my publication's parent company.)

The NASCIO team came to the governors' meeting with a long list of stimulus-related questions. Among them:
  • How do states plan to use technology to meet the stringent transparency and accountability requirements that are attached to all those stimulus dollars?
  • What will states do to make sure the highly targeted federal money does not perpetuate the often "siloed" ways that state organizations run their staffs and operate their systems -- particularly when federal laws and regulations in effect require that funding and data be segregated in ways that may be inefficient?
  • Do the governors plans to use any stimulus money for cybersecurity or consolidating their frequently decentralized data centers in order to protect the underlying technology on which nearly all government infrastructure and services depend?
  • Will states use the $7 billion dedicated to extending high-speed Internet access to under-served communities to pay for increasingly important wireless technologies as well as more traditional fiber- and cable-based efforts?
  • What are the states' plans for coordinating the $19 billion provided for spreading the use of electronic medical records?
  • How much of the $106 billion for education and training will be invested in educational technology?
  • And will any of the $37.5 billion for energy research go for the kinds of "green IT" programs that are high on the agenda for state technology leaders, who also see opportunities for controlling expenses by deploying computer systems that gobble less electricity?

I don't pretend to have the answers to these questions, but they are the right ones to be asking. Technology may not be a head-turning, sexy subject for most elected leaders, but it is so critical to the way governments do business -- or need to -- that it should be among the issues that get top billing the next time the governors put on one of their big shows.

(Note: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly stated that technology was not called out at all as a topic on NGA's agenda. That error has been corrected above.)

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