April 30, 2009 By Steve Towns, Editor
Economic stimulus funds may jump-start city and county technology initiatives -- once local officials figure out how to get their hands on the money.
Speaking at a conference in Virginia earlier this week, CIOs from some of the nation's largest cities and counties said they quickly assembled lists of "shovel-ready" IT projects when it became clear President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package would become law. Now they're waiting for details on how the federal government will hand out the money.
"I have 22 pages of projects that are estimated to be impacted by the stimulus -- all of them are existing programs. But we truly don't know what we'll get. The reality is that we need quantifiable information," said Harris County, Texas, CIO Steve Jennings, speaking at the Center for Digital Government's Beyond the Beltway conference Monday.
Similar lists were compiled in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver and Orange County, Fla. Because the money must be spent quickly, most officials predicted stimulus dollars would go toward existing programs or projects with contracts already in place. Pumping the money into existing programs -- rather than new projects -- also eases concerns about sustaining new initiatives after the stimulus dollars are spent, they said.
Denver CIO Molly Rauzi said she'll use stimulus money to restore features deleted from current projects due to cost-cutting.
"We put in a new IT governance process that justified $25 million in technology investments. Now we're trying to understand how the stimulus can help fund some of these plans," she said. "We'll add back scope and features that we had to cut out of projects because of cost."
Rauzi added that stimulus funds could help pay for library broadband and work force development initiatives underway in the city.
Video: Denver CIO coordinates security and communications technology for police, firefighters and other responders involved in the DNC.
Chicago CIO Hardik Bhatt also predicted the stimulus package would benefit local government IT once the funding rules are sorted out. "There have been so many projects that don't get started due to lack of money," he said. "At least projects have a chance of getting started sooner in areas funded by the stimulus."
But guidelines for allocating stimulus money -- especially for funds doled out through competitive grants -- will have a critical impact.
"Take the broadband grants, for example. That $7.2 billion will be divided among lots of players," Bhatt said. "We're trying to understand the rules. We need to know the definition of 'underserved communities,' for example."
Funding details may start emerging later this week, when state government representatives meet with the Obama administration to discuss stimulus spending issues. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will host a conference Thursday, March 12 in Washington, D.C., on implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Governors of all 50 states have been invited to send their senior Recovery Act official -- their so-called stimulus czar -- to the event to talk about programs and initiatives that are available under the stimulus plan.
Besides shoring up IT projects, stimulus dollars also could trigger purchasing changes as cities and counties struggle to rapidly pump the money into ailing economies.
"We're trying to take advantage of the need to spend the stimulus quickly to re-engineer the procurement process so that it can move more quickly," said San Francisco CIO Chris Vein.
Bhatt said Chicago also may look at making procurement changes through its city council. And Orange County, Fla., CIO Rafael Mena said the jurisdiction's procurement director is a member of the county's stimulus team, which is tracking potential funding opportunities. "We wanted to make sure he's in that group," Mena said.