Legislative Notebook: Week 11

A central concern for some in the legislature has been how to ensure that all aspects of Vermont state government are evaluated for effectiveness and productivity. All taxpayer dollars should be spent in ways that produce desired results - we should get a good "bang for the buck." This initiative involves something called "Results Based Accounting" (RBA). In this approach explicit policy goals are set, performance measures are chosen, and programs are evaluated for success in performance. The results should then guide future resource allocations. Or at least that is the idea, but it is not easy to implement.

The software and hardware of computer systems have become essential components not only in performing state functions but also in tracking government effectiveness using tools like RBA. The state will need to make significant investments in these systems for information management and accumulation of knowledge in order to operate agencies and in order to evaluate their operations.

In January Speaker of the House Shap Smith appointed me to a special committee to review matters related to legislative oversight of Information Technology (IT) systems in state government. This committee was charged with evaluating the current system of legislative oversight of the purchase and operation of computer software and hardware systems and making recommendations for increasing effectiveness.

The motivation for setting up this committee is that over the past several years Vermont government has tried to implement a number of new IT systems and in some cases the new systems were not delivered as expected. We had to struggle to get our money back and we remain without the functions and efficiencies that the planned systems were intended to bring. The Department of Motor Vehicles and the Judiciary systems are two examples.

Since those difficulties the Administration has hired a new Chief Information Officer and Department of Information and Innovation Commissioner named Richard Boes. DII provides direction and oversight for all activities directly related to information technology within state government. Among its missions are "to improve state government effectiveness and productivity and to achieve cost savings by leveraging technology to drive down the cost of doing business."

Mr. Boes has more expertise and wider experience that previous DII Commissioners. There is reason to believe that DII and other agencies will not repeat some of the recent mistakes. Agencies will be less likely to try to get programs that have all possible customized features. Instead DII will guide them to get reliable systems that can do most of what is needed. It is also essential that new systems can be upgraded and improved over time, and that all state systems can be coordinated. And we must guard against new kinds of mistakes going forward.

All state agencies and DII are operated by the Governor and his Administration. But the legislature allocates funds to agencies and to IT projects and we have oversight of how they work - which brings me back to the legislative IT committee. After reviewing the situation the committee has come up with the following tentative recommendations that we will take back to the Speaker. First, the legislature needs to get better advice in evaluating proposed new systems and verifying their effectiveness. We need our own expertise independent of the Administration. Secondly, we need to develop guidelines for all legislators to use in evaluating IT systems in their policy areas: basic technical background, the best questions to ask, and so forth.

And thirdly, the leadership of the House and the Senate should consider setting up a Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee to focus on these issues.

Regardless of the fate of these recommendations, I will continue to work with others to improve productivity and to lower the costs of government. I keep thinking that we need both computer programs and agency initiatives that are like the Vermont Morgan horse. Morgans are sturdy and long lived, and can perform a variety of tasks well. They may not be the fastest horses or the strongest horses, but they combine both strength and speed. Vermonters need government agencies and computer systems that have the resilience and adaptability of Justin Morgan's horse.

Cynthia Browning is a representative from the legislative district that includes Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and most of Sunderland.


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