From the Top Down
- By Harvey Meyer
- Apr 02, 2001
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.
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
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.
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,
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
"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."
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
This is especially true when it comes to technology in her state, where
significant economic-development strides have been made to establish a varied
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
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,"
While her administration is fine-tuning economic development efforts,
Minner is also determined to capitalize on tech initiatives to improve state
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."
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
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
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
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
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.