The art of the deal
- By Eric Kulisch
- Dec 03, 2000
Otto Doll, director of South Dakota's Bureau of Information and Telecommunications,
has a way to get buy-in on technology issues from skeptical lawmakers. Like
any salesman confident in his product, Doll lets them sample the merchandise.
Take laptops, for example. Two years ago, Doll's staff decided laptops
could make bill writing and revision faster and more efficient. So he allowed
a group of committee chairmen to experiment with them. Apparently, they
liked them, because this January all 105 legislators will start the new
session with laptops in hand.
And then there were the audio broadcasts Doll wanted for the legislature's
Web site. His team wired the education committees in both the House and
Senate, then, lo and behold, lawmakers granted Doll the go-ahead to wire
all committees for online broadcasts.
"Let them use the technology, even if just once," Doll said. "Then have
some testi-monials about it so they can get some sense about what the technology
is like. Your implementation of the technology for them is going to dictate
their attitude to legislation."
Those in government information technology are realizing the merit in
Doll's approach; unless they demystify IT for lawmakers, their projects
could go nowhere fast. And law-makers are learning that they can no longer
leave technology to the techies — their constituents will hold them accountable.
To that end, some states are reorganizing the legislative process to
give elected officials a bigger role in IT decision-making. Legislators
are getting in on the front end of discussions about technology policy.
And state IT managers are getting creative to educate politicians and to
foster closer relationships with them.
In South Dakota, at least one legislator is the wiser for Doll's efforts.
"That whole process was very helpful," said state Rep. Richard Brown,
chairman of the South Dakota House Education Committee. "It certainly has
enhanced the legislative perspective of the computer's utility in the public
Making the Connection
Those initiatives are fairly new. Not too long ago, IT managers seemed
to make a point of keeping their distance from the business side of government.
The separatist attitude no longer works, said Mark Badger, former chief
information officer in Alaska who's now the public-sector Internet business
development manager for Cisco Systems Inc.
"It used to be that agency IT heads saw it as part of their unwritten
charter to always remain siloed, to not let political leaders do too much
damage," Badger said. "It was almost like a badge of honor to see how much
they could be resistant."
But today, Badger said, the "honorable stand is "How well have you played
together? How well have you protected the security of your department while
allowing the state to behave like a statewide enterprise?'"
Getting legislators to understand information technology issues, budgets
and requirements can be a daunting task for state IT managers, officials
say. It helps to be pro-active rather than wait until a project needs funding
or a problem has arisen.
Some state officials are going the extra mile to bring lawmakers up
to speed on technology.
In Idaho, the Information Technology Resource Management Council (ITRMC)
sponsored a technology boot camp in September for state lawmakers, educators,
mayors, county commissioners and other policy-makers. Former ITRMC manager
Miles Browne said the event was not a "bits and bytes" discussion for IT
professionals but a workshop for policy-makers to see how technology can
improve the lives of Idaho residents.
Boot camp attendees heard about topics such as e-government applications,
recruiting IT talent, and security and privacy safeguards for electronic
trans-actions. Representatives from 22 state and local government agencies
gave interactive demonstrations of their e-government applications and
Idaho state Rep. Debbie Field said her colleagues "went from feeling
very intimidated to being very excited" about information technology and
Idaho's progress. "We could see that indeed we could be a leaner and more
efficient government" if officials continue to respond to IT possibilities,
she said. Because of the camp, Browne said legislators have a better ability
to act on budgets that include elements of IT and electronic services.
Other states learned the hard way that IT was a topic not to be taken
lightly. The Year 2000 scare did it for Wisconsin. State Sen. Bob Jauch
said the experience helped create executive/legislative partnerships over
"Clearly, legislators weren't very interested in technology, and IT
people tended to think, speak and manage in a world of their own," said
Jauch, who two years ago chaired a Year 2000 task force for the National
Conference of State Legislatures. "I would say one of the outgrowths of
Y2K is that IT managers realized they needed a cooperative relationship
Jauch said the post-Year 2000 attitude of members of the Wisconsin legislature's
Joint Information Policy Committee and the state's Division of Technology
Management has stuck and can be seen even today in smoother interactions
between the two bodies on things such as e-commerce and other technology
Changing the Process
The best evidence that technology has earned a place at the legislative
table is the increasing number of states formalizing the IT policy-making
States such as Virginia, Idaho and Tennessee have set up technology
councils or boards to develop statewide IT policy and spending guidelines.
These councils often include legislators as members.
At last count, 25 state legislatures have created some combination of
standing IT and joint oversight committees or budget subcommittees to write
bills for technology issues, according to the National Association of State
Information Resource Executives.
In Virginia, Gov. Jim Gilmore's administration makes sure legislators
are included on all task forces.
In May 1998, Gilmore established the short-term Commission on Information
Technology to give industry a say in shaping the e-commerce playing field
and the transition to e-government. The commission included industry representatives,
cabinet members and six legislators.
Later that year, Gilmore invited people from state agencies, institutions
of higher education and local governments to sit on the Council on Technology
Services to develop a blueprint for state IT planning and decision-making.
Legislators are often invited to those meetings.
At the request of the Virginia General Assembly, this past May, Gilmore
formed the Digital Opportunities Task Force to evaluate best practices in
closing the digital divide. Ten of the 51 members are from the General Assembly.
Virginia Delegate Joe May, who is active in IT issues, said it's vital
for legislators to serve on those groups. "They can take some of what they
learn back to the legislature," May said. "It's such an enormous field that
without some individual legislators making a point of learning what's out
there, it just becomes an impossible job to deal with."
In Washington, in 1998 the leadership of the state House of Representatives
refocused the Energy and Utilities Committee to take on IT issues. It's
now known as the Technology, Telecommunications and Energy Committee.
"What makes this vital," said Steve Kolodney, Washington's CIO, "is
that the members of that committee start hearing about similar matters in
context. You start seeing a lot of interrelated bills and proposals that
in former days might have gone to many different places, and now they have
an IT thread that draws them together."
But not all states think separating technology discussions is the way
to go. The California legislature, for instance, is decentralizing its IT
The State Assembly's Information Technology Committee has been disbanded
because it wasn't handling enough legislation, according to several staff
members. Its role will be folded into the Jobs, Economic Development and
the Economy Committee. The intent is to expand IT's jurisdiction into all
areas, said Glenn Gilbert, principal consultant for the Information Technology
Under the old structure, Gilbert said, "It would be like during the
Industrial Revolution having President Polk forming a commission on railroad
technology. That would be really missing the forest for the trees."
Anna Brannen, principal fiscal and policy analyst for California's Legislative
Analyst's Office (LAO), said the reshuffling makes sense. "There are a few
issues where IT stands on its own, but in most cases it really belongs with
the program area."
The LAO helps the legislature make sense of IT policy. Much like the
U.S. General Accounting Office does for Congress, the LAO provides nonpartisan
budget analysis and fact-gathering on complex budget issues.
When huge automated systems for the motor vehicle and child welfare
administrations failed spectacularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s,
costing the government millions of dollars, more legislators began to take
advantage of the LAO as an IT resource, Brannen said. The office helps legislators
raise questions about how much the state spends on IT projects, where the
money is going and how projects are managed, he said.
Georgia CIO Larry Singer also favors letting technology seep into all
areas of legislative business.
Every subcommittee knows it needs to find out how IT affects its policy
decisions and that it can't defer the matter to tech-savvy colleagues, Singer
This year, Georgia legislators created the Georgia Technology Authority,
a body that straddles the executive and legislative branches to handle all
aspects of IT management, procurement and oversight.
GTA members must be employed in the private sector and have high-level
experience managing IT enterprises — although not those that do business
with the state. The governor appoints seven members to GTA, the lieutenant
governor and the speaker of the House each appoint two members and the chief
justice of the Georgia Supreme Court selects one nonvoting member. The group
chooses the state's CIO.
Singer, who heads GTA, has a team of experts who coach legislative committees
through IT deliberations. "They are looking for us to provide them with
assurance that the agencies they have oversight of have done due diligence
in their project planning and procurement and budgeting, and so they are
getting leverage at the enterprise level," Singer said.
Little by Little
Legislators can't be transformed into IT maestros overnight. Officials
say the trust and understanding will likely come about gradually, as IT
professionals build credibility among politicians.
Even in Virginia, a state that is no stranger to IT, Don Upson, secretary
of technology, has learned not to assume that lawmakers understand. Last
session, a plan for a statewide geographic information system failed to
gain approval, and Upson said, "If I made a mistake, it's [because] I assumed
that everyone understood what we were doing."
Now Upson's staff has set up a GIS in the legislature so lawmakers can
see first-hand the benefits of overlaying demographic, crime, voting and
other data on a map. He also is meeting with the chairmen of legislative
committees, including the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations
Committee, and meeting with legislators when he travels around the state.
Next session, he expects a better result on GIS.
Constant communication is a must, said J.D. Williams, Idaho's state
controller. IT managers must be able to explain the necessity of programs
ranging from exciting e-government applications to more mundane back-end
systems — especially the mundane things. "It's not sexy," Williams said.
"But that's where the big bucks have to be spent."
And with communication must come consistency.
For instance, if an IT agency wants to sell its legislature on a big
project such as seat management, it needs a good track record for developing
and implementing smaller systems, said Mark Boyer, senior public-sector
manager for Cisco's Internet business. He said the worst thing to do is
to sock the lawmakers right away with a huge project that will generate
Boyer, former head of the Alaska Department of Administration and a
state legislator, said in order to get certain lawmakers on the bandwagon,
he'd drag them individually to technology symposiums. "They'd come back
full of ideas," he said.
South Dakota's Doll briefs lawmakers on what other states have done
so that they are familiar with the successes as well as the failures.
And in South Dakota and Georgia, IT officials make sure legislators
use laptops, electronic bill-tracking and in-house Web sites. That experience,
coupled with their increasing use of sophisticated IT in their private-sector
jobs, makes legislators more comfortable with IT issues, Singer said.
An added bonus is that IT is almost in fashion in the political world.
In the past two years, IT has become less of a political stepchild because
lawmakers are realizing the value of the Internet, Boyer said. "Voters want
e-government accessibility, and if [lawmakers] can deliver, it makes good
politics," he said.
This is especially true in states where the technology sector is booming.
"In Washington, where the constituency is techno-centric, there is political
value in being connected to those issues," Kolodney said.
When system failures or budget problems arise, those politicians who
educated themselves about their state's IT efforts and exercised oversight
along the way "will be able to pass the red-face test," Badger said.