Governing IT in Government

 
 
By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 2009-04-13
 
 
 

When it comes to the business of government, budgets remain as squeezed as those in private industry. But agencies aren’t abandoning the concept of pursuing advances in IT. In fact, state, local and federal customers are seeking the latest IT products and services that can help them save or make millions by reducing energy use, enhancing Web services and more effectively “drilling” for data in ways that translate directly into a bottom-line benefit.

Nevertheless, the amount of money the government sector will spend on IT in 2009 and beyond will depend greatly on the troubled economy.

“The economy affects all agencies,” says Shawn McCarthy, director of research for government vendor programs at Government Insights, a research company owned by Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. “There’s less money coming from taxpayers and less tax revenue from declining property values. This will hit the state and local agencies harder than the federal ones. But the lights won’t be turned out when it comes to IT spending.”

Projections from Government Insights and other companies that track government spending offer a mixed forecast.

After experiencing healthy growth from 2004 through 2007, IT spending at the state and local level will hit a bump, declining from $24.4 billion in 2008 to $23.8 billion in 2009, according to Government Insights. Still, there is much interest in enterprise software, system consolidation and software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions in the state and local market, McCarthy says.

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers, an industry association based in Lexington, Ky., indicates that IT consolidation, security, resource sharing, Web 2.0, e-records management, and data and document management will be among the top priorities for its membership in 2009.

Spending increases in the federal IT market are expected to slow down in the next several years—to just under 4 percent annually—after experiencing an average of 7 percent growth a year for the last two decades, according to INPUT, a market research firm in Reston, Va. INPUT projects that federal government IT spending will increase to $83.4 billion in 2009, up from $80.8 billion in 2008.

Baseline recently interviewed government agency managers to learn more about three key IT areas of interest: green IT, Web services and data management. Here’s what these managers reported.

Numerous government agencies are exploring green IT. At Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colo., for example, the U.S. Army is using a software solution from Enviance to track and reduce emissions from buildings, jeeps, and other military property and equipment to lessen the impact on the ozone layer. Fort Carson officials see the Internet-based SaaS system as a way to comply with a federal mandate to reduce emissions by no less than 30 percent by 2015.

The overwhelming majority of green initiatives center on virtualization—with respect to both server and desktop consolidation. One agency that has benefited from this technology is the Oklahoma State Department of Corrections (DOC). In the agency’s Southwest District, the IT budget is tight, and the cost of providing Dell desktops for every parole officer has been straining resources. So the district has launched a desktop virtualization project with NComputing.

Today, eight offices spread throughout the district are using virtualized desktops, allowing up to six users to share a single computer. The solution has been so successful that the agency is considering expanding it to the prison library system, which would save costs on providing desktop services to inmates.

“Our IT budget is nil, and this allows us to save $400 to $500 per seat,” says Brian Thomas, the DOC’s information systems network management specialist who launched the project. “No one is using the full capacity of a computer at any given time, so this enables us to get the most out of every computer bought. We could put up to 10 users on each computer, but we’re keeping it to six for now to see how it works out. So far, it’s been working out better than we expected.

“While going green is a great idea, it’s a by-product benefit here. Frankly, we really needed to cut costs, and that’s exactly what this solution allows us to do.”

In recent years, agencies have been increasing efficiency and freeing up significant budget dollars by making more effective use of something they already had: data. Today, a number of data management tools are allowing public-sector customers to do just that.

The city of Charlotte, N.C., for example, is using a product from Tableau Software that can analyze trends and patterns in staff responsiveness to citizen requests, based on detailed information that’s stored in everything from data warehouses to Excel spreadsheets. This improves the ability of city employees to address these requests.

And the state of Missouri has found gold in data mining—almost literally, as its tax department is saving millions of dollars by using improved IT data analysis tools to catch tax dodgers. Using an enterprise data solution from Teradata, the state has recovered an astonishing $51.8 million from noncompliant tax filers. This revenue would have otherwise been lost due to unpaid taxes or underreported incomes on the part of citizens and businesses.

Essentially, the solution brings together tax-related databases from a variety of resources within the state Department of Revenue. These include databases that deal with individual tax filings, sales taxes, employer withholding, and corporate and franchise taxes.

The system is able to cross-check this data with data from other state departments, such as business license applications. It can even cross-check with data reported to the Internal Revenue Service, to see if there are any discrepancies with what was reported to the state.

Through complex search queries, the solution allows Missouri revenue employees to discover, for example, whether someone has held a state license for a 10-employee construction contracting business but has been reporting revenues more in line with a single-contractor shop.

“We get great leads and information,” says Lesa Morrow, compliance director at the Missouri Department of Revenue. “We know who these noncompliant people are, and we know why they’re noncompliant. So when we sit down with these people, we can go over specifics as to why we’re contending that they are not compliant.

“For example, if someone tells us they’ve just started their business, we can document that they’ve actually been running it for three or more years—because that’s how long they’ve been filing unemployment tax reports with our Department of Labor. In the past, we never had the ability to share and make use of this kind of data.”

In the “old” days—say, 1999—government agencies generally used the Internet in a relatively passive way, with Web sites that were fairly static. Most sites simply hosted directory information, mission statements and perhaps some press releases.

Flash forward 10 years: Government agencies can no longer be accused of being passive. Many are aggressively pursuing the latest, most interactive tools available to engage citizens, improve services and coordinate various agency missions. As a result, concepts such as

Web 2.0 have emerged as a mantra in many public-sector circles.

Consider these examples involving various government entities:

• GovTwit.com, a directory listing government agencies using Twitter, includes numerous Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies—not to mention state and local governments.

• Phil Bertolini, CIO of Oakland County, Mich., creates podcasts, streaming video and blogs using tools from GovDelivery to get out the latest word about what his office is doing.

• At the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of HIV/AIDS Policy has launched the AIDS.gov blog. The agency uses an IT solution from PBwiki to track content edits and additions among staff members posting content, such as interviews with research scientists. The site also features regular podcasts on the latest developments in AIDS-related programs.

• The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is also discovering new ways to use various online resources to serve citizens. Specifically, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, HUD is now using a Web-based solution to launch what it calls the National Housing Locator System. The system, from Citizant, allows the department’s staff members to go online and quickly find available housing for people who are displaced from their homes by natural disasters.

Before and during Katrina, HUD first responders had to scramble among many scattered online resources to track down available housing for victims. But now, HUD—as well as the state and local agencies it works with in times of disaster, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials—can access the housing locator system to find vacant housing leads from more than a hundred government and commercial sources, including ApartmenTime.com, Socialserve.com, Gosection8.com and dozens of local housing authorities.

“After Katrina, a White House report revealed large gaps in this process,” says Lisa Schlosser, CIO of HUD. “There was no one-stop shop where we could find available rental properties.

“If we had someone who needed a place that was disabled accessible and allowed pets, we’d go to one site that listed properties that had disabled access, but it wouldn’t have any information about pets. Then another site would allow us to search for places that allowed pets, but wouldn’t have any information about disabled access. Now, we have all of this and more, on one searchable site.”

• HUD is also aggressively pursuing social media tools to help it better communicate its services to the public. These efforts include the use of online blogs and sites such as YouTube.

“It’s ironic, because it wasn’t too long ago that many government agencies restricted employees from accessing these kinds of social networking outlets online,” Schlosser says. “But, in 2009, we anticipate posting video shorts about housing on YouTube, and posting updates about what we’re doing on blogs.

“It will be a great way to get the word out about the latest in new housing legislation and recent mortgage insurance programs and even give guidance on how to refinance into a fixed-rate loan. If there are people who are in danger of getting foreclosed, we can use these tools to help them find a more secure housing solution.”

Clearly, all levels of government are considering using advanced technology to better serve their constituents and, hopefully, save money in the process.