May 26, 2009 By Steve Towns
With billions of stimulus dollars heading for state coffers, CIOs are urging the federal government to loosen funding rules they say promote poor IT system design and inefficient use of precious funds.
Shortly after last November's election, representatives from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) met with President Barack Obama's transition team about modifying rules for spending money given to states for operating federal health care, transportation, social services and public safety programs. NASCIO contends that cost-allocation guidelines and technology requirements tied to these funds often clash with state data-sharing and ecnterprise architecture initiatives.
"Those were good rules 20 years ago because they made sense in a highly distributed computing environment. But today, they perpetuate silos," said NASCIO President Gopal Khanna, the CIO of Minnesota. "As new funding comes in and IT spending is being planned at the state and local level, my hope is that the federal government would be aware of the reality and not perpetuate the silos. It defeats the whole purpose of enterprise architecture."
Before passage of the stimulus package, NASCIO projected that the U.S. government would give states more than $300 billion in 2009 to administer and deliver federal programs. A big chunk of that money will go toward computer hardware and software that's purchased and maintained by state agencies. But state CIOs say federal accounting rules and restrictions on commingling funds for one program with those for another lead to stand-alone information systems that can't communicate with one another - even when the systems are used to deliver closely related programs. Furthermore, inconsistent technology requirements built into federal programs frustrate state efforts to create shared services and enterprise IT structures.
With the prospect of even more billions flowing into state governments thanks to the stimulus bill, overhauling federal funding rules takes on even greater urgency, Khanna said.
"It is one of the areas that has caused a lot of waste in government. From a purely business perspective on behalf of the citizens, it makes sense to leverage the money to do more," he said. "When you have duplicate architectures created at the state level, money is being wasted. Second, when you construct different architectures and islands of optimization, they are counterintuitive to this whole idea of interoperability."
But big changes may not come as fast as state CIOs would like. NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson said major reforms won't happen during the initial round of stimulus activity because changing the rules now would slow the flow of stimulus dollars into the nation's staggering economy.
"Significant changes are unlikely at this point because of the speed at which this is moving," Robinson said shortly after attending a March 12 stimulus implementation conference hosted by Vice President Joe Biden. "The formula grant funding - and some of the other grants - is being channeled through the existing programs, so they don't have to create a lot of new funding channels."
At press time, states already were receiving billions of dollars in formula grants for health and human services, education and transportation. But officials were waiting for the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue rules for competitive grants, as well as for tracking and reporting how stimulus money is spent. Robinson said the OMB could start to address the funding-restriction problem by encouraging stimulus fund recipients to coordinate with their state CIO when using the money for technology upgrades.
The long-term outlook for funding reform is more encouraging.
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.