From the Top Down

The newly elected governors from Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia and

Delaware may be just out of the starting blocks, but they've wasted little

time in grappling with an increasingly urgent question: How can technology

help advance their agendas?

All four governors highlighted technology initiatives in their first

state-of-the-state addresses. Montana's governor even celebrated an Information

Technology Day soon after taking office.

"Improvements in technology accounted for a lot of the gains in productivity

and in our economy during the past decade," North Dakota Governor John Hoeven

said. "Like private industry, we in government need to develop and utilize

technology because it will be key to helping us prosper."

The governors are examining the myriad ways technology can enhance service

to citizens and promote economic development — from finishing a high-speed,

broadband network to helping recruit high-tech employees to offering an

array of electronic government services.

Although officials are enthused about the initiatives, several fret

about keeping up with ever-changing technological advancements and the millions

of dollars they often require. They also worry about ensuring that technology

is accessible to everybody and about privacy and security issues. Additionally,

they realize technology's no panacea and that although some initiatives

may be accomplished quickly, others may take time — a long time.

"I just don't think you can turn a big ship around [like state government]

that quickly," cautioned Thom Rubel, director of state information technology

programs at the National Governors Association.

Following is a glimpse of larger technology initiatives in West Virginia,

North Dakota, Delaware and Montana.

West Virginia

Robert Wise, West Virginia's new governor, thinks big when it comes

to technology plans for his state — as in shoot-for-the-moon big. The governor's

Office of Technology hopes to position West Virginia as the "Technology

State" for the new millennium.

"If you look at West Virginia, we have less than 1 percent of the U.S.

population, but far less than 1 percent of the nation's technology businesses,"

said Keith Comstock, the state's chief technology officer, who's helping

a technology council examine the high-tech industry's economic impact on

West Virginia. "But our goal is for West Virginia to be to the technology

sector what Delaware is to banking."

Although attaining such prominence is a long way away, Comstock characterizes

West Virginia as being in an "emerging" phase in technology development

— the state is brimming with technology initiatives. Among the more eye-catching

proposals outlined in an extensive technology blueprint is creating an "Internet

free-trade zone" that would offer companies primarily involved in e-commerce

a tax-relief benefit package, including an exemption from paying state corporate

income taxes.

One creative measure calls for providing an interest-free loan to cover

the cost of relocating key high-paid technology employees to state firms.

This state loan would convert to a grant if the company retains these coveted

workers for several years.

Another suggestion calls for larger, out-of-state technology companies

to team with smaller West Virginia firms in state technology contracts in

a mentor/protege relationship. Technology knowledge transfer would occur,

particularly if the protege firm starts with a smaller percentage of work

that later expands.

Yet another recommendation would establish high-tech incubators, featuring

considerable bandwidth and premier office space, in smaller West Virginia

communities. If tech employees — notorious for moving on after relatively

short stints — wanted other career challenges, they could pursue jobs with

other incubator companies.

"We have an outdoor lifestyle, including skiing, mountain biking and

whitewater rafting, that's attractive to young high-tech workers," said

Comstock, acknowledging the state currently has difficulty recruiting and

retaining talented tech workers. "But a lot of the best and brightest are

reluctant to move to rural areas, because they fear there aren't other jobs

for them and that they'll have to put their careers on hold."

Wise, who spent 18 years in the West Virginia Legislature, also proposes

more partnerships with business and education institutions to prepare tech

workers, and the creation of virtual learning centers to provide state-of-the-art

training in networking, e-commerce, programming and other areas. Capitalizing

on an existing program that trains and helps entrepreneurs develop tech-based

products and processes, Wise's administration has also proposed student

scholarships at technical training centers and other venues.

Meanwhile, Comstock, a veteran IT manager and entrepreneur, said the

state will continue pursuing cost-effective technology initiatives that

offer citizens better service and accountability. One example: West Virginia's

55 counties allow people to enter pleas and conduct other judicial business

via teleconference, thus reducing courtroom backlogs and saving officials

time and transportation costs.

Comstock particularly welcomes future e-government applications. His office

is examining ways to increase interactivity between state and other government

agencies, thereby permitting citizen-entered data in one portal to automatically

transfer to other relevant portals. He's hoping safe and private e-government

applications will produce a better-informed and more communicative citizenry

on laws, regulations, policies and services.

"We want to offer citizens a one-stop shop, where they don't have to

bounce around 35 different Web sites and know how state government organizes

itself," Comstock said.

North Dakota

You don't have to convince Gov. John Hoeven about the value of technology

for North Dakota. Before assuming office, Hoeven was president of the Bank

of North Dakota, and he saw firsthand how technology tools boosted productivity.

"With technology and training over a seven-year period, we increased

our loan portfolio from a couple hundred million dollars to more than a

billion," a revved-up Hoeven said. "And we were able to increase profits

with even fewer employees."

Hoeven is optimistic that technology can help catapult North Dakota,

a rural, isolated state with a meager 642,200 population, into the New Economy.

Pair technology with the state's more than 90 percent high-school graduation

rate and a "tremendous" work ethic, and you've got an enviable combination,

he said.

A high-tech priority is completing a statewide high-speed data network

that would eventually connect 552 locations in 194 cities. The government

— through state, regional and local agencies, medical buildings, K-12 schools,

higher education and other institutions — provides enough of a business

base for a private enterprise to finish the entire broadband backbone, he

said.

"It's a very important technology initiative because we want our rural,

tech-based entrepreneurs and businesses to be able to compete with those

in larger communities," Hoeven said. "And educationally, smaller schools

would enjoy the same kinds of opportunities." For example, smaller schools

could tap into language and advanced science classes offered via live videoconferencing.

For Hoeven, education is key to fashioning a technologically minded

state. So he proposed $2,000 annual scholarships to encourage more North

Dakota students to pursue math, science, engineering, biotechnology, informational

management and other tech-based degrees. Students must maintain a B average

and complete one or more internships with a state tech-based company. Coupled

with that is a Bank of North Dakota loan program aimed at developing science

and technology faculty in state universities.

Meanwhile, Hoeven proposes adding a teacher professional development

day for technology training, and he suggests creating a state program to

repay student loans for "displaced teachers" who undergo retraining in IT

and other in-demand areas.

He also supports expansion of a North Dakota University system program

that matches successful business people with professors to help tech-savvy

entrepreneurs develop sound business plans. Additionally, he challenged

state universities to stress research on emerging technologies, including

biotechnology, telemedicine, engineering, information and wireless communications,

and medical technology.

"If we're going to build, diversify and compete in this New Economy,

we must have the technology infrastructure in place," Hoeven said. "Then

our true strength, our people, can come to the fore and we can be very successful."

Delaware

Some say if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But Ruth Ann Minner, the new

governor of Delaware, likes to add that there's nothing wrong with constantly

tweaking things.

This is especially true when it comes to technology in her state, where

significant economic-development strides have been made to establish a varied

technology base.

Concentrating its efforts in IT, biotechnology and advanced materials,

the state has recently developed a raft of initiatives, including five advanced

technology centers, one of which features a highly regarded biotech institute.

Additionally, Delaware offers a technology park housing 35 high-tech business

incubators; a second such park is under construction.

Meanwhile, Minner supports an ongoing campaign, the IT Initiative, aimed

at preparing students for IT careers and recruiting and retaining IT professionals

and businesses. Coordinated through the Delaware IT Association, the initiative

produced the popular IthinkDelaware.com Web site to help IT job seekers.

A second Web site promoting IT education for both children and adults just

began operating.

Furthermore, a new IT Learning Center concentrates on educating students

about managing all-important network data and systems. Adding to the momentum,

Minner recently launched the Strategic Economic Council, an advisory group

that will help pinpoint expected growth areas in technology and other sectors.

"The [Minner] administration is embracing some [technology] initiatives

started in the latter half of the previous administration," while others

have been shelved, said John Wik, Delaware's economic development director.

But the goal remains unchanged: "Much as Silicon Valley is recognized as

the semiconductor area of the country, we'll become noted for our IT initiatives,"

he said.

While her administration is fine-tuning economic development efforts,

Minner is also determined to capitalize on tech initiatives to improve state

government operations.

That's a major reason why, in one of her first official acts, she created

a task force to do a top-down examination of how the state manages information

and IT, including a review of the Office of Information Services' structure

and mission. It's critical to obtain the most bang for the $150 million

to $200 million the state annually spends on technology, said Jack Markell,

the state's treasurer, who heads the task force.

Although Minner intends to improve technological functions to enhance

state agency communications, planning and budgeting, she's also interested

in how the Internet can help improve service to citizens.

Markell points with pride to several existing e-government services,

including business income-tax filing and a polling-place locator, which

allows citizens to find the nearest polling place and even review candidates'

Web pages. He is especially enthused about the recent creation of a state

Web site that caters to citizen intentions.

Officials are also excited about an initiative to require Web-posted

information about companies' environmental compliance history and violations.

They're also jazzed about a Department of Motor Vehicles' plan to use Eprise

Corp.'s software to allow front-line staff and policy-makers to provide

Web content and effective management.

As upbeat as officials are about e-government services, they also know

the initiatives will need constant, perhaps never-ending, tweaking. "We're

not even done with the first half of the first inning [with e-government

initiatives]," Markell said. "This is a marathon that we've just started."

Montana

Within weeks of becoming governor, Montana's Judy Martz spoke at the

capitol during the state's first Information Technology Day. She discussed

how IT could be a powerful enabler for the state's citizens, businesses

and communities.

Martz, the state's former lieutenant governor, called attention to a bill

that would reorganize and coordinate how government uses IT. Involving best-practice

recommendations from a broad-based advisory board and overseen by a chief

information officer, this effort would make the state's budgeting and planning

more efficient and accountable, said Barbara Ranf, Montana's director of

administration.

But Martz is also proposing a host of other technology initiatives designed

to promote economic development and improve service to citizens and business.

The state, which served as an anchor customer so telecommunications companies

could install broadband services in many Montana cities and towns, is committed

to further partnering so those services can be offered to even more communities

and rural areas.

Martz hopes Montana can become a testing ground for development and

distribution of new broadband and wireless capabilities. "Because Montana

is so large and the population so spread out, we see wireless technologies

as helping span that distance," said Ranf, a former executive at Qwest Communications

International Inc. "That high-tech infrastructure will allow our citizens

and businesses to prosper" regardless of location, she said. Some of those

firms will be technology-based, a critical factor because "we need to encourage

high-tech firms to help diversify our economy," she said.

Another economic development proposal calls for a five-year tax credit

for high-tech businesses either expanding in Montana or out-of-state firms

starting operations. Initial discussions centered on applying an as-yet-

undetermined credit to investments in infrastructure and technology applications

and use.

Meanwhile, the state's Commerce Department is working with the private

sector to establish an "online mall," accessible from the state's Web site,

to enhance national and even global exposure to Montana firms' goods and

services. And Ranf said the state is exploring the creation of scholarships

so students attending Montana vocational schools can receive technology

training. The plan proposes that the scholarships come from a trust fund

including monies from a tobacco settlement, the private sector and a federal

grant.

Martz is also enthused about prospects to better serve Montana residents

through e-government applications. An e-government vision statement recommends

that the state offer an easily accessible, citizen- driven, comprehensive

Web site that takes into account privacy and security concerns.

Fourteen applications should be available by mid-year, including online

motor vehicle title and registration renewal, business registration and

annual business license renewal, and access to individuals' driving histories

by insurance firms and perhaps other parties.

"We're absolutely excited about these e-government applications because

it offers us an opportunity to be more accessible to citizens," Ranf said.

"There's a lot of support for this from citizens and legislators."

Meyer is a St. Louis Park, Minn., freelancer who writes for a variety of

national business, consumer and general interest magazines.

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