State, local governments win praise for technology

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Capital News Service
LANSING –Michigan has gone digital. At least its government has.
It received the top grade in the 2010 Digital States Survey, a biennial study by the Center for Digital Government that measures effective use of information technology in all 50 states. Utah received the only other A on the survey.
“If you’re a Michigan citizen now, you can do a lot more through the website than you could years ago,” said Kurt Weiss, public information officer at the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. “It’s the old adage of not having to wait in line, but rather you can get your work done online.”
Many local governments are deeply engaged in the digital drive as well, including Oakland County and Birmingham. Oakland ranked No. 1 in the center’s 2009 Digital Counties Survey. In a category for smaller counties, Ottawa County was No. 8 and Washtenaw was No. 9 in the same year.
According to the latest survey, an A means the state was “trending sharply up” in IT use and using technology effectively for a broad range of purposes, with its programs widely adopted across the state.
The study singled out several Michigan practices for praise, including online programs for unemployment certification, job search seminars and processing of Medicaid payments.
Twenty-five percent of unemployment certification is now done online, the Web seminars receive about 10,000 views a month, and a Medicaid caseworker who handled 200 cases a month in 2006 can now handle 700.
Weiss said that consolidation and sharing of services among departments and local governments has greatly improved efficiency and reduced cost.
“A lot of states still have IT departments within each agency,” Weiss said. “We took all the different IT staff and resources and put them into one department. We consolidated e-mail systems and consolidated data centers. We have less servers than most states, and we’re making better use out of those servers.”
Weiss estimated that the consolidation has saved the state more than $100 million in the last four to five years, including $10 million from consolidating e-mail systems and $20 million from consolidating data centers.
He added that money is also saved when the state collaborates with local governments.
“All governments buy the same stuff,” Weiss said. “We all buy servers, we all buy laptops, we all buy software. We all have the same needs when it comes to IT, so leveraging those purchases makes a ton of sense.
“Why not let local government buy off of state contracts and vice versa? We’ve done some of that, and I think you’ll see more of it in the future,” he said.
Oakland County is working with the state to increase IT efficiency.
“We’re currently connecting our fiber networks together so Oakland County’s network will be connected with the state of Michigan’s,” said Phil Bertolini, chief information officer for the county.
“We also have provided the state with a piece of technology that we created and built – it’s the food inspection program of our environmental health program,” he said.
The Department of Agriculture will use county’s program instead of creating its own, saving money for taxpayers, Bertolini said.
Weiss said Oakland has been particularly innovative, citing a video arraignment program used in jails as an example.
“Moving offenders is not only very costly, but it’s also a security problem,” Bertolini said. “So by having a holding cell where they can be brought in and then be arraigned with the judge saves a lot of time and a lot of money.”
There are thousands of other uses for IT in government, but the biggest impact is in online sharing of information, said Larry Schmitz, president of the Association of Information Technology Professionals region that includes Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Schmitz said almost all levels of government have websites now.
“They are chock full of useful information that citizens within the jurisdiction can access from the comfort of their homes,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz said putting information and records online is a win-win situation because it is less labor-intensive for government, and more convenient for citizens.
Judy Rumps, IT director for Birmingham, said information-sharing is the major function of IT in her city.
“Simply using the Internet has to be the biggest thing we’ve done,” Rumps said. “Getting information out to people is so much easier.”
Local information might tell how to pay a water bill or where to find City Hall.
Patrick Gossman, deputy chief information officer at Wayne State University, said that on a larger scale, online information makes the average citizen more informed about government.
“Whether they show up at the doctor or they show up at a rally, people have got very specific questions and they’re armed with information,” Gossman said. “It’s not just emotion they show up with, it’s emotion and information, and IT has certainly been a huge part of that.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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