Pennsylvania seeking a bigger bang for its IT buck

With public-sector information technology purchasing, having a multitude

of good ideas is often more of a problem than having a lack of them. As

various agencies come up with ways to find, buy and implement products and

services, a "solutions overlap" frequently arises because each solution

is tailored to the specific needs and audience that each agency serves.

Pennsylvania's Office for Information Technology (OIT) has adopted an

innovative approach to merging the best aspects of individual ideas into

an infrastructure that leverages the state's IT buying power. By encouraging

the reuse of similar system components in different applications and the

integration of systems that serve similar clients, the state's Investment

Review Program (IRP) helps to realize opportunities for technology sharing

and cost efficiency that might otherwise be lost in a deluge of agency-specific

projects.

"In many cases, when we were providing feedback about projects that

were being planned by multiple agencies, we realized that we could implement

a single solution that could meet their needs," said Sandra Mateer, the

state's director of IT planning and support. "We have tried to focus on

situations where we can build a system once and use it for many applications,

or where we can build it once and use it for similar client bases."

Now in its fourth year, the IRP requires agencies proposing an IT purchase

of $250,000 or more to complete an electronic form on the state's intranet

that streamlines submission procedures while focusing the process on how

IT needs might be met to the mutual benefit of agencies throughout the state.

Raising issues, such as how a proposed system will alter an agency's business

process or how other agencies can use the same system components for similar

tasks, the IRP also allows for a flexible evaluation process as agency needs

evolve.

"We provide a template on our intranet that helps agencies to analyze

their projects, and we ask that they take their best shot at making a cost/benefit

analysis," Mateer said. "The questions are designed to be simple and straightforward,

and we've left a few escape hatches because we recognize that the technology

may be further developed by the time the project gets funded."

Last year, with a higher threshold requiring investment review of projects

costing $500,000 or greater, about 60 proposals were evaluated by a staff

of 12 within the OIT, Mateer said. She expects a greater number of proposals

this year, given the lower dollar amount that marks projects for consideration.

"The nice thing about working with a template is that it can be easily

changed to accommodate changes in the program," Mateer said. "So when we

decided to lower the amount at which the IRP kicks in, because we realize

that it's possible to do some pretty significant projects for less than

$500,000, it wasn't difficult to update the template to reflect the change."

Initially wary about the extensive information they are asked to provide

under the review program, the state's 52 agencies, boards and commissions

have come to regard the IRP objectives in a positive light, as multiagency

projects have been launched and individual agencies have seen the benefits

of the approach, Mateer said.

The Pennsylvania Justice Network, also known as JNET, provided an early

IRP success story when 13 state public safety agencies were pulled together

in a common network that serves their common client base, making the criminal

history files of suspects and offenders widely available to state police,

local police, and prison and probation officials. (JNET was a winner in

civic.com's State and Local 50 awards. See Page 24.)

In addition to a strong synergy between the OIT staff and the Office

of the Budget, the investment review approach also requires a good understanding

of how individual agencies work, Mateer said.

"You need to be reasonable in your expectations and not be surprised

if initially some of the submissions don't include the kind of detail you

want," she said. "It's difficult to get agencies to think in terms of a

cost/benefit scenario. But once they understand that part of their cost

justification will be in how well they can show how their proj-ect will

benefit other agencies, they realize that this is actually a powerful enabling

tool for their projects."

—Walsh is a freelance writer based in Peekskill, N.Y.

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