Virginia's IT Game Plan

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore unveiled his technology master plan last month, naming computer industry executive and government policy-maker Don Upson as the state's first secretary of technology and forming an information technology commission to advise the state. The strategy, featured in our cover story this month, is three-pronged: to create the business conditions for increased technology investment in the state; to deepen the state's physical technology base; and to train a work force that is capable of operating such an infrastructure.

Like Virginia, other states and commonwealths are trying to use IT as a lever for economic development. Taxpayers in California and Massachusetts have benefited hugely from their natural selection as centers of high technology. Recently, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have made specific efforts to link their economic well-being directly to new IT investment. Now Virginia is proclaiming itself a high-tech haven, one that is especially well-equipped with Internet companies and an Internet-ready work force.

Virginia very well may succeed. But the job of its new management team may have more to do with directing forces toward investments that already exist in the state than trying to wave in new investors through the marketing of potential opportunities. Virginia and the entire Washington, D.C., area are, of course, already gigantic hubs of IT commerce and investment.

According to our story, 2,450 technology firms in the state already employ 250,000 workers who earn a total of $13.8 billion in wages. The state does not attract that kind of high-tech action simply by having good transportation or school systems. It takes economic opportunities of the highest order to drive that kind of business interest in an area, and Virginia is comfortably situated next to the largest single customer of IT in the world: the federal government.

Even so, the governor and his new technology chief face imposing challenges. Creating and maintaining a hospitable economic environment for that kind of IT presence will not be easy. Therefore, it was wise to invest in the secretary position and give him high responsibility for both technology and policy. It is also wise for the new team to focus on how best to train and maintain a capable IT work force as one of the mainstays of the team plan. Today, work force training and supply is the Achilles' heel of any IT-based long-term plan. Finally, it will be important for the new secretary to face the infrastructure problems that already exist within the state. As our cover story points out, it is likely to be the challenges of maintaining internal systems-purchasing, finance and personnel-that could deter him from his goals outside of government.

But despite these hurdles, the state is taking a wise course in creating an overall strategy for putting IT in service to its larger economic goals. It's a good plan with the right perspective.

Paul McCloskey

Editor

civic.com

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