June 3, 2009 By Paul W. Taylor
"If you screw up today, you are going to have a lot more people paying attention to the screwup than you would 10 years ago. And conversely, if you can lead a success, there is a lot more potential interest and power behind the ability to organize a success story, to organize a project and bring it to fruition."
This aptly describes the promise and pitfalls of being digital. It's the observation of Jeffrey Eisenach, generally credited as the father of the Digital State Survey. But he isn't talking about today's mobile culture of text messaging and tweeting, which overdiscloses life's mundane. Eisenach's comments are from a 1997 Government Technology interview in which he insisted "the digital revolution is very real to the average citizen today" and "states, localities and nations need to move much more rapidly than they are right now to get digital." That was 12 years ago, but the complaint still resonates.
In many ways, technology's finally catching up with Eisenach's vision of what government could do. But even in the mid-'90s, he and others saw possibilities that came with a more fully connected world. "There is a lot more ability to build coalitions and bring a lot more people into the process than you could before, and a much bigger payoff if you are successful," he said.
Gentle competition among states has been a catalyst for ad hoc coalitions that have formed and operated informally for more than a decade. Under the tutelage of the survey's adoptive parents -- the Center for Digital Government (CDG) -- the singular Digital State is now a community of Digital States. There are three distinct tiers: a dozen top-ranked states with a common view of the future, a second tier intent on challenging for the top 10 and a third group that shares a strategy to leapfrog onto the charts.
The Digital States Survey is the nation's original and only sustained benchmark of state IT programs as a whole -- from citizen-facing applications to the policy framework and technological infrastructure that makes it all possible.
If competition organically morphed into informal collaboration, a group of states and the CDG recognized an opportunity to do something more formal and structured. Something that tallies a Digital State's defining characteristics -- now and in the future as efficiency, transparency and performance become the watchwords of governing in the economic recovery age. Something that builds on the biennial survey's reputation with a year-round program of ongoing original research, analysis and practical aids in the strategic planning process through regional events, webinars, podcasts, online communities and panels and -- of course -- a Twitter feed.
All this coalesces this summer with the launch of the CDG's Digital States Performance Institute (DSPI), a community to modernize and improve government. It's intended to extend the value of the survey's benchmarks through documenting and sharing best and emerging practices by states that are committed to meeting today's needs and tomorrow's expectations.
The DSPI is where states can collaborate and co-create in unique Web 2.0 fashion. Eisenach understood the importance of getting on with it and getting it right, back when the Web didn't have a version number. "It is a national issue that is in the hearts and minds of the majority of the American people today and will continue to grow in importance."
Editor's note: This column originally appeared as Competition and Collaboration in the June print edition of Government Technology magazine.