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December 13, 2009

Why We Can Succeed

After Governor Douglas' press conference last week, there was the usual scrum of reporters and administration officials in the hallway of the fifth floor of the Pavilion Building in Montpelier. The Governor had just said that Vermont cannot and must not sit around waiting for another Stimulus Bill (which would be a bad idea nationally) but can and must address its own structural problems in order to succeed in the post-bubble, post-recession (and post-stimulus) economy. In fact, he said, we are working towards a much more effective state government and have seen some early bipartisan support for some of the tough stuff we must do. Vermonters, he said, realize there's a problem, know there's no painless way out, and expect and will support action.

The reporters were, as reporters should be, skeptical. Is this just one more reorganization of government? If so, why do we think that it will be any more helpful than past reorganizations? Anyway, what are the specifics of the things we intend to do? What are these changes? What does a much more effective state government look like?

We administration officials didn't give the reporters the specifics they'd like to have – and I'm not going to do that here. Plans are not done; legislators not briefed; specific legislative proposals not written; and we have to propose a budget to deal with a anticipated gap of $150 million or more in fiscal year 2011 while figuring out how to permanently make state government more effective at lower cost to match revenues which will remain lower than in bubble years (and were being outstripped by expenses even then).

"So," a reporter asked me, "what is your role as Chief Technology Officer?" That is a question I can answer and helps answer why I believe we CAN succeed.

Part of my responsibility is to assure that we're using technology broadly-writ to make state government not only more efficient but also more effective. With a vast wave of retirements coming up in the state work force, there's an obvious opportunity to do the same work with less workers if we provide those workers the proper tools. But that's not enough; we want the work to be qualitatively better in terms of outcomes. Just for example: it's a good thing in itself if we can deliver needed benefits to needy beneficiaries with less overhead and fewer mistakes (efficiency); but it's even better if those benefits help more of the beneficiaries become independent (effectiveness).

Turns out that technology can be a big part of gaining both efficiency and effectiveness. Things are very different technically then when prior attempts at change fizzled or partially fizzled. We now have examples of how industries like airlines have used the web to dramatically change customer service both to reduce service costs AND to empower customers. Some readers may remember when you went to a travel agency to get paper tickets which were written by hand before you could fly anywhere.

Here's what's changed:

  1. The web exists and most people know how to use it to get service (but not all, of course).
  2. Even in Vermont broadband adoption is growing rapidly.
  3. The SmartGrid project by Vermont utilities and the VELCO fiber build (almost $200 million between them) will bring high-capacity data-carrying fiber into every corner of Vermont. This "backbone" capacity is necessary to get all our institutions online with very high bandwidth and to take us closer to meeting our residential availability goals even though the fiber itself won't stretch all the way to every home.
  4. We plan to up the goal from 100% broadband availability to 100% adoption (the Governor has proposed that over $3 million of remaining stimulus money be used for this rather than as a short-term bandaid). This assures that government services delivered electronically will be accessible to almost all Vermonters.
  5. The cost of computing resources continues to follow Moore's law down (50% reduction in cost for the same capability every 18 months) so that many computing and communication dependent projects have gone from impossibly expensive to very affordable just in the last five years.
  6. We can now afford to gather the data we can't afford to govern without (but, as of now, don't have). 

So, from my nerd's POV, the realm of the possible is greatly expanded, especially if we don't let ourselves be bound by current organizational constraints. We not only have the means to quickly implement 21st century government in Vermont, we are ready for change and all its attendant discomforts, confusion, and fears. 

  1. No alternatives to much more effective government other than a drastic cut in benefits to those who can't afford a drastic cut, raising taxes which will quickly get us less income as taxpayer flight accelerates, or the fantasy of more and more "stimulus" forever from a federal government whose credit is running out.
  2. A much better realization from at least some lawmakers of the situation we're in. The Governor talked in his press conference about the very real cooperation and good thinking coming from Joint Fiscal Chairman Michael Obuchowski and others.
  3. The acceptance (subject to ratification) of a paycut by state employees. That makes them part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We now owe it to them to give them better tools (technology, again).

It's going to be a very tough year in the legislature and in the state; but I'm optimistic that we'll be able to focus on the right issues, make the right choices, and do more than just "recover".

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