Advancing A Tech Agenda

Gov. Mark Warner is implementing technology with savvy management to bootstrap legislative and policy changes and reshape Virginia's future

Gov. Mark Warner like his predecessors in Virginia, has a problem unique in American government: He doesn't have much time to leave a legacy. Virginia is the only state to limit its governor to one four-year term at a time.

Although Warner could run again in the future, for now his legacy involves reshaping the way Virginia government functions, borrowing heavily from his technology roots as co-founder of the high-tech venture-capital firm Columbia Capital Corp. and as an early investor and leader in mobile-phone provider Nextel Communications Inc. His technology-inspired vision focuses on using IT and the Internet to run the state more efficiently, to sculpt the educational system in order to create a highly skilled workforce that would be a magnet for new business, and to bring broadband and other technologies to rural areas so those regions can share in economic growth.

Now, just past the halfway point in his term, the most tech-savvy of governors finds himself investing most of his energy in trying to reform how Virginia government raises revenue, rather than getting technology to help change the way it operates. Warner, a Democrat, finds himself in an odd political position, wedged between two groups of Republicans who dominate the Legislature: the ultraconservative powers in the House of Delegates, who proffered fairly modest changes that limit any tax increases; and the moderately conservative leaders in the Senate, who submitted more sweeping alterations in the tax code that could raise taxes by $3 billion.

Mark Warner, governor of Virginia

Consolidating IT from 91 state agencies should save $100 million a year, Gov. Warner says

Photo courtesy of AP
Still, Warner, 49, claims some success in his government-technology reformation, leaving at least an imprint on the legacy he hopes to bequeath when his term expires in January 2006. His biggest accomplishment has been the establishment of the Virginia Information Technology Agency, which is midway through an 18-month process of absorbing the IT operations from 91 state agencies. Warner estimates that combining IT operations under VITA will save Virginia taxpayers nearly $100 million a year.

When Warner took office, no one knew how much Virginia spent on technology. Among his first acts as governor was hiring George Newstrom to be his technology secretary, charging the former EDS executive with uncovering that figure. Three weeks later, Newstrom reported that the state spent between $800 million and $1.2 billion annually on IT, but he couldn't get more specific. "We had no clue," Newstrom says.

Six months later, with the help of consultants at BearingPoint, Newstrom pegged the figure at $902.6 million, much of it wasteful. Warner and Newstrom immediately began to work with receptive lawmakers to create VITA. But VITA didn't turn out exactly as Warner envisioned.

Warner wanted VITA's CIO to report to the governor, but lawmakers didn't want to vest that much power with the governor. Instead, a board with five people appointed by the governor and four by the Legislature was formed to oversee the CIO. Warner wanted VITA to grab control of state IT immediately; the Legislature wanted a slower transition. The 18-month IT consolidation will be completed by the end of December. "This was a compromise; we didn't want to give the governor blanket spending authority for $1 billion," says Joe May, the Republican chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Warner isn't griping. "The 80% of [the] loaf we got still makes it the most extensive consolidation effort anywhere in country," he says. Warner made sure the CIO would be given a five-year term, which would span two governorships and give the tech exec time to accomplish goals to drive efficiencies through IT.

Warner also has championed Internet-age technologies that could help Virginia save money on its purchases. Earlier this year, the state used reverse auctions to buy computer tapes, saving 30%--about $350,000--from the amount spent last year under conventional acquisition approaches. "Mark Warner's business background has focused him on technical-management issues that other governors have ignored or haven't had interest in, because they had no training to look at them," says University of Virginia political-science professor Larry Sabato, director of the school's Center for Politics.

Yet, swift changes in the political climate can play havoc with any agenda. Take the rising din over offshore outsourcing. Virginia doesn't ban the practice. Over the years, Virginia hasn't outsourced much work to U.S. firms, let alone foreign ones. Warner says only one agency--the Department of Social Services--has sent some application-development work offshore, affecting a handful of jobs. Still, some lawmakers are starting to complain. Policy makers must find solutions that protect American jobs, Warner says, but they shouldn't take a protectionist approach. "How you make that balance--that value for ... our taxpayers--but at the same time not send jobs, particularly state jobs, offshore is something I'm working on. But I don't have a full answer on it yet," he says. "This is a struggle lots of governors are starting to grapple with."

Outline of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's high-technology agenda:
ADOPT AN ENTERPRISE APPROACH to government by consolidating IT management and employing technology to save money, including self-service Web applications and reverse auctions.
EMPOWER RURAL REGIONS to attract businesses with high-paying jobs by providing broadband and other technologies and educational facilities.
REFOCUS HIGH SCHOOL CURRICULA to provide high-tech certifications to non-college-bound seniors so they can join the skilled 21st-century workforce.
LEVERAGE R&D DOLLARS for Virginia's university system to foster the creation of intellectual capital. One example: the year-old state-sponsored Institute of Defense and Homeland Security.
Warner believes combining better education and training with incentives that keep employers here for years could work. He frowns on the approach some governments have taken, turning to a prospective business and saying, "'Here, we're going to write you a check. Come to the community and open a business.' Maybe [the financial incentive] needs to be a little less up front and a little more spent over time, making sure we upgrade the quality of the workforce," the governor says. "I haven't found a silver bullet."

As an example, Warner points to the new Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, a technology center in the southern Virginia city of Danville. The center was conceived with the hope of attracting technology and talent, as well as creating blue-tech jobs--positions that entail technology certifications--that are critical to the economic development of rural regions. "He's very, very tech-driven in trying to help areas in the state that aren't tech-driven," says John Lee, CEO of a systems integration company and a member of the citizens' board that oversees VITA. "He has focused hard on spreading the wealth in the technology area."

Warner still believes in the promise of the Internet, where time and distance are irrelevant. "There used to be something called the New Economy with the vision you can build it anywhere," he says. "That's a vision I still believe in, but that's not happened yet. I would like Virginia to be the place where it happens."

Contiune to the Q&A: Warner Moves Smoothly From Technology To Government

Return to the column:Tech-Inspired Change

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