Rural states thriving on technology

In rural states, it's not uncommon for residents to drive hundreds of miles to renew their car registrations or conduct other state government business. But technology and the Internet are creating a new environment in which residents can do business, communicate, learn from and even interact with government officials electronically.

"Rural states have a definite incentive to take advantage of technology just because of the distances between the population centers," said Darrell West, director of Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy. "People can order services online as opposed to having to drive 150 miles to a government office. That would be a tremendous plus. So a number of rural states are really making this a major priority."

Arkansas and North Dakota are two such states. Over the past few years, both have aggressively promoted technology and e-government not only as a convenience for residents and businesses, but also as a way to transform government.

"What we want to be able to do is create a 24/7/365 kind of government," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in a recent interview.

Economic development is another "critically important" reason, said Gov. John Hoeven of North Dakota.

"One of the things that we have always had to confront is our distance from the population centers," he said. "Technology eliminates that barrier, and so we want to be very aggressive in using it. Our competitive advantage is the tremendous work ethic of our people and their tremendous productivity. And technology is the tool that really puts us in a strong position to compete in the global economy."

Both states have built a communications infrastructure to close the digital divide and increase bandwidth for classrooms and communities. Both governors said technology makes better use of the fewer resources and people in their states and is critical for information sharing and homeland security. And both back enterprisewide projects for streamlining administrative functions.

Earlier this year, state officials launched Connect North Dakota, a comprehensive system that integrates the administrative operations of the state government and universities in the areas of financial management, human and student resources, and customer relationship management. The system was created "not only for improved productivity and economic reasons, but in order to meet the compliance standards required by the federal government," Hoeven said.

The state is developing the system with PeopleSoft Inc. and Maximus Inc. It will integrate 11 campuses of the North Dakota University System and the state government and include a link to elementary, middle and high schools. "I don't even know of any states that have their entire university system on one software system, let alone the state agencies" and kindergarten through 12th grades, Hoeven said.

Before Connect North Dakota, Hoeven oversaw the deployment of a high-speed data network created in partnership with the Dakota Carrier Network, a company formed by several rural telephone cooperatives. The network linked all state government offices, libraries, schools, courts and other offices. The project is now in its third phase of upgrading video technology and other equipment.

Similarly, in Arkansas, Huckabee has championed the Arkansas Administrative Statewide Information System (AASIS), a $30 million information system for purchasing, finance and human resources management, developed with SAP America Inc.

AASIS, which began last year, is the largest IT project in the state's history. It will move the government from a cash to an accrual accounting system that will be more efficient and accountable to taxpayers, Huckabee said. In the first months of AASIS, the state saved more than $3.6 million, he added.

But the system has had its share of critics, especially when additional funds were needed to fix problems. Any new system has "hiccups," said Huckabee, adding that some legislators don't understand the nature of technology.

"We try to say that when you buy a car, that's not your last expense," he said. "You still have fuel, oil, insurance and maintenance."

Huckabee said the system has been "well accepted" by state employees, who received training in using it. However, he said the state only recently instituted a certification process to ensure that employees understood the training.

"We feel the important component is the certification process so that when you take the training, we assess whether or not there's a mastery of it, and if not, then we continue the training," he said.

AASIS will receive the E-Gov Pioneer Award, which recognizes innovative e-government solutions, at the E-Gov 2002 conference this week. E-Gov and Federal Computer Week are both owned by 101communications LLC.

Despite the budget shortfalls for many state governments, both governors said future technology and e-government initiatives are important. But they acknowledged that better business cases and return-on-investment measurements would be needed in the future. Legislative support is also crucial, they added.

Brown University's West agreed that future technology projects might be a harder sell.

"The budget deficits that a lot of states face [are] a major barrier to innovation in this area because now e-government is having to compete with every other priority," West said. "And my guess is that the rate of innovation will slow somewhat as states try to stretch their dollars."

Hoeven said North Dakota is one of only four states — the others are West Virginia, Texas and Wyoming — that don't have a deficit.

"Clearly, the recession is having an impact on us, too," he said. "We're essentially at a break-even level [between state revenues and spending], and we're working very hard through identifying cost savings measures throughout all our agencies to maintain...a break-even."

Huckabee said: "Technology becomes more important in budget shortfalls because if we can create access to government electronically, it means we can start the process of reducing the facilities we have to have and the manpower we have to have to staff them."

Arkansas, for example, is working with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to develop a pilot project that will enable residents to renew vehicle tags at Wal-Mart stores rather than through a state office, Huckabee said. If the project takes off, an Arkansan could walk into a Wal-Mart store, access an electronic kiosk and walk out with new tags claimed at the customer service desk.

He added that technology is an "overall evolution of human life."

"There is a certain risk in being an innovator in technology," he said. "But also I would say it's very much worth it because if a government truly is going to serve its people, it ought to serve them in the most efficient way possible and it ought to serve them in a way that reflects their culture rather than the culture of government. As the culture of people continually moves toward technology, I think we're providing very poor service when we don't attempt to work in that realm."

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