Prairie pragmatism helps Minnesotans
- By Trudy Walsh
- Jul 30, 2003
'We've always used outsourcing to augment staff. But some things are not as cost-effective to outsource as you might think.'
'Minnesota's Reggie David
Minnesota is a land of plenty: crystal clear lakes, fresh air, lutefisk (a dish of cod soaked in lye) and highly educated citizens.
But what the state is short on these days is cash.
'We're looking at a two-year deficit of about $4.5 billion,' said Brian Lamb, commissioner of Minnesota's Administration Department.
With characteristic prairie resolve, state officials are facing the challenge head-on.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is promoting the concept of improvement by innovation, Lamb said. One way the state is doing this is by finding 'pockets of excellence' in state agencies and sharing their success stories with other agencies, he said. Several involve agencies' use of IT.
Under the plan, state agencies create excellence teams, made up of the best and brightest workers, to help other government groups develop business re-engineering projects, business tools and benchmarks.
Lamb said the state's Commerce Department was one of those using IT to bolster the state's financial health. All Minnesota businesses are required to register through the department, he said. The department improved processing speed by 15 times by putting applications for all business licenses online. The savings were significant. 'Smart use of IT can save money,' he said. 'Think of all that redundant information you don't have to enter.'
The state also is looking at re-engineering its internal operations and aggregating its systems, so there aren't 17 separate document management systems, said Reggie David, assistant commissioner for the Office of Technology.
Minnesota is taking very seriously the savings to be gleaned from e-government, David said. About 65 percent of Minnesotans use the Internet and are able to access the state's Web portal, called Northstar, at www.state.mn.us
'One of our challenges is that we have a very geographically dispersed population,' she said. Much of the state is rural, and getting high-speed connectivity out to those areas is difficult, she said. In some parts of the state, the only way to access the Internet is by modem.
David's office did not receive any funding for new technology projects in this budget cycle. 'So we're trying to be creative with what we have,' she said.
The office uses outsourcing carefully. 'We've always used outsourcing to augment staff,' she said. 'But some things are not as cost-effective to outsource as you might think,' she said. For example, state employees run the Northstar portal. Every state agency has its own CIO and technology team that contributes to the portal. 'And they know their content better than anyone,' she said.
But despite state budget constraints, Minnesota's economy is strong, David said. Unemployment is at 4 percent, two percent less than the national average.
And the state's bitter winters haven't kept away newcomers: Minnesota is one of the few northern states that has a growing population.
The Office of Technology has changed under David's tenure as assistant commissioner since August 1999. The office has shifted from a focus on policy to a focus on technology, she said. It has helped the state implement an enterprise architecture and improve project planning. 'Now we can prevent those runaway projects that do not end,' she said.
One of the first things to be cut in a time of budget shortfalls is training, Lamb said. 'And that's unfortunate. We're calling on our state work force to change, so to reduce training at this time is counterintuitive.' To remedy this in part, the state is offering online e-learning tools.
'I really am an optimist,' Lamb said. 'The changes in the economy in the last three years make you go back to pruning the tree and getting to what's really healthy. We've got to nurture the core of what's left, but I think the state is now in a better position.'
Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.