IT 101 in Oregon
- By Brian Robinson
- Jan 07, 2001
Everyone these days seems to be aware that information technology is becoming
the backbone in government plans to improve and extend services. Still,
many agency executives charged with implementing those plans have a woeful
lack of understanding of technology and its place in modern business practices.
Governments might look to Oregon for ideas on how to fix that. To educate
its executives about IT, the state recently began a six-session "21st Century
Government" training program that officials hope will go a long way in broadening
Educating officials was one of the issues identified in Oregon's 1998 enterprise
IT strategy, said Don Mazziotti, the state's chief information officer.
"The chief technology person in private industry generally wants to
be the "high priest' of technology, and they look to create a codependent
relationship with other executives in the organization," he said. But that's
not a healthy model for government to copy, he said, particularly when it
comes to interactions on the business side of an organization. "As e-government
and e-commerce become staples of governments, it's important that we not
have technocrats dispensing knowledge," he said.
Oregon's Information Resources Management Division spent six months
meeting with agency executives to find out what kind of technology information
they felt would be of most use. Then IRMD spent another few months designing
a curriculum and putting it through dry runs.
The result was a series of three-hour sessions held every other week.
Up to 30 people at a time participated in a comprehensive set of presentations
that covered the basics of current technologies — such as what an application
service provider does and the difference between a mainframe and the client/server
model of computing. The majority of the time, however, is taken up with
management and business issues associated with technology.
Mary Neidig, director of the state's Department of Consumer and Business
Services (DCBS), and one of the first executives to take the training course,
said it's important because of the need for increased coordination on projects
between agencies. And she said leaders need to know how to gauge the differences
between agencies' systems.
"We've been doing projects fairly independent of other agencies up to
now," she said, "but as we go forward, there's going to be more and more
emphasis on working together, and there will be an increasing need not to
embark on things that don't fit in the big picture. There'll be a greater
need for an understanding of statewide goals."
That will come down to an understanding of such things as return on
investment and how the ROI for a DCBS system fits into this overall picture.
"I come from the private sector, where ROI is based on future product sales,"
Neidig said, "so such things as valuing projects, which was one of the things
presented in the training sessions, was new for me. But now I think we have
better tools to judge the payoff of our projects and a way to take a better
argument to the legislature when we ask for funding."
Although expertise differs among agency executives, Julie Pearson, manager
of Oregon's Statewide Technical Education Program Services, says most of
them don't really know technology or what developments are occurring. That
puts them at a disadvantage even in their own organizations, she said, because
as technology becomes more important for agencies, executives need to align
more closely with their IT people.
"It's not necessarily a one-way thing," Pearson said. "One of the things
that CIOs in other agencies have suggested is that business- oriented people
need to know about technology and IT people need to know more about the
business side of things. We do have classes on these issues for the IT people,
but we've had nothing for the executives before now."
The six-session series will be held once every quarter, with the next
to begin Jan. 4 and run through Mar. 15 at a cost of $1,125 per person.
Each of the first five sessions comprises a lecture of up to two hours,
with the last hour or so left to questions and answers. The final session
— aimed at fitting the lessons of the first five sessions into the specific
expectations of the Oregon plan — is a give-and-take between session participants
and a panel of state agency heads.
After the first series that ended late last year, Pearson feels future
sessions will become less formal and more interactive. There's also the
possibility of producing Web-based programs as a way to provide continuing
education for session participants, she said.
Although acceptance of the need for this type of training varies throughout
the Oregon government — Mazziotti says it will take some time to convince
all the agencies' management about its worth — some are convinced that the
knowledge that courses impart will be readily absorbed into agency operations.
According to Neidig, for example, in her department IT is not considered
separate from other issues.
"Among the 12 group leaders we have in the DCBS, there is an understanding
that we need to have this knowledge about IT," she said. "In fact, IT is
one of the three initiatives we have under examination by our executive
team. There is an expectation that I and others involved in the training
sessions will be active in establishing the culture in the DCBS that IT
A part of the discussion DCBS executives are having is how to monitor
performance within the department and how to move ahead toward doing that
electronically. Before the technology training program, it was not possible
to have that kind of discussion, she said, so the training has helped to
set in place "a higher level of debate and expectation on what needs to
be done to move things forward."
However, what might ultimately win executives over is an argument familiar
to all government department managers. Given the fact that large government
departments are spending a lot of money on technology, Mazziotti said, senior
executives will need to know what technology is all about. If they don't,
they will find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to asking- legislatures
Understanding that, Mazziotti said, is "really not that difficult."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.