Seeding the Market

When Hurricane Georges battered Louisiana in September 1998, the state for the first time had a backup system standing ready to take over communications in any state parish if phone service was lost or the storm damaged radio towers.

Each of the state's emergency operations centers had a portable satellite communications terminal, comprised of a laptop computer with an antenna to transmit voice and data. State grant money designed to spur agencies to design innovative information technology projects paid for it all.

Matt Farlow, chief of the operations division of the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness, said his office couldn't have afforded the terminals without the use of $544,000 from the Louisiana Technology Innovations Fund.

"I can literally have a conference call in the sky without having to rely on land-based communications," Farlow said. "If you have a major disaster, you're going to lose telephone communications. If we send our recovery teams out for disaster analysis, they don't physically have to come back to tell us what they see. Using the technology has given us a backup means of communications to those parishes but also provided us a data path to those parishes we did not have before."

The state created the Louisiana Technology Innovations Fund in 1997 with $10 million in seed money to fund state agency technology projects. Between then and 1999, agencies submitted 34 grant applications to a five-member technology council created to manage the fund. Of those 34, the council approved 12 applications for $6.5 million in support.

The winners include a distance-learning project for the state's military, a patient information and tracking system for the Louisiana State University Medical Center and a test bed for Next Generation Internet videoconferencing technology. Seven additional applications are pending review.

Don Hutchinson, deputy state commissioner and chairman of the council that manages the fund, said its purpose is to encourage agencies to devise innovative ways to use technology to enhance their operations.

"It's really to get agencies to think outside the box, with an emphasis of how technology can be used to do a better delivery of services to the people," he said. "We want to use this technology innovation fund as an example to the legislature that technology can do a lot for the delivery of citizen services. We want them to look at technology and embrace it as a priority that we need to focus on."

Although state government investment in private-sector technology endeavors is now a common practice to drive economic development, Louisiana is one of only a handful of states (see sidebar) to invest in IT projects within state agencies.

"We felt that if a state agency had a good idea, many times they would go to an outside source with it anyway," Hutchinson said. "The business community can go to a state agency and say, "We have this idea. How can we make this work?' We saw the financing as being a real great incentive to get people to do it."

Council members are looking for innovative projects and those that other agencies can get some use out of, Hutchinson said.

"We do not want state agencies to use this fund as an opportunity to simply look for ways to spend the money," he added.

The council has funded less than half the submitted proposals. They have rejected several — such as those centered around videoconferencing, thin-client technology, compressed video and document management systems — because they weren't innovative. The council recently nixed a project because it seemed like an add-on to a project that already had won money, Hutchinson said.

Saving money isn't the focus here, Hutchinson said, adding that sometimes it's hard to even figure how much a project saves because the impetus is improving service. However, several grant winners also boasted significant savings.

The Louisiana Army National Guard projects that it will save $4 million during three years as a result of its funded distance-learning program. And officials from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimate they will save more than $1 million during three years once they automate the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.

Once the agencies start thinking creatively, it can get contagious, Hutchinson said. Wildlife and Fisheries, for example, received grant money to provide point-of-sale devices to stores selling hunting and fishing licenses to lessen the paper burden associated with that process. Now they are planning to take registration online.

In addition, the agency is considering expanding the program to allow point-of-sale registration for recreational boaters and commercial license applicants, said Craig Lamendola, confidential assistant to the secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Not only does the department plan to boost its $11 million average annual revenue generated from selling licenses, the department can use the data captured to survey licensees, he said.

"We will have the most current database in the state because our licenses are sold every year," Lamendola said.

Sharon Dawes, director of the Center for Technology in Government, said that although investment funds encourage innovation, there are dangers in setting sights too high — especially in terms of cash return.

"Sometimes you don't get outright savings, but you get performance improvements for the same cost," Dawes said.

Thomas Greene, a former Louisiana senator and member of the fund's council, said officials need to be careful that the fund is not used to pay for existing technology that could be funded through the normal budget process. He also said projects need to be monitored by an independent legislative auditor to track their progress. "If you don't have that follow up, I don't think you can learn from your mistakes," Greene said. "That feedback is necessary. Self-praise is half scandal. You can make figures say anything you want."

The fund council will judge its latest round of proposals with one new guideline, Hutchinson said. Council members will start pushing projects that are Internet-driven, he said. This most recent round of proposals includes some with potential to be far-reaching, such as one involving satellite technology to help detect oil spills and evaluate their severity, he said.

As Louisiana moves forward with the technology investment fund, other states might soon follow its lead, Dawes said.

"States tend to watch one another, [and] as these kind of programs develop a history and a performance record, others will follow and learn from their experience," she said.

— Heather Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.


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