What's so Special About Virginia?
New Commons and Left Brain recently bid (unsuccessfully) for the opportunity to assess the City of Providence website and recommend an alternative approach. As part of the RFP, the city pointed to the Center for Digital Government's rankings of municipal websites. They said they wanted to be "at least as good as the best". So I checked out the rankings.
Immediately, I was struck by the inordinately high number of best sites in the state of Virginia. Digging further into their rankings of state websites, Virginia ranks an impressive 3rd. There had to be a connection, so I dug yet further and found that VA.gov provided exactly the same kind of service that RI.gov offers.
And it turns out that both states, in turn, are supported by the same company. Yes, company.
NiC is a private company that acts as an outsource platform supporting a form of public/private work teams that develop and maintain the specific platforms that various state agencies and municipalities use. This latter group - the cities - might be the biggest beneficiaries of all. For example, Lynchburg, VA's website won the top spot for cities with populations between 30 -75k, and Lynchburg is a local partner with VA.gov.
It's clear that across the state of Virginia, including within municipalities, administrations have focused attention and resources on IT, particularly web development. So it should come as no surprise that both US Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and US Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra were drawn from VA governor Tim Kaine's cabinet. (Hence the rapid proliferation of ubiquitous platform federal government websites.)
And This Means What for Rhode Island?
As I said above, this is huge. If we can continue along this trajectory, these investments in core IT capabilities should translate directly into economic benefits. Bear in mind that Virginia ranks #1 in 'business friendliness' according to Forbes. It's true that RI ranked dead last in that same survey, but RI.gov goes directly to reversing some of the problems associated with red tape. As RI.gov continues to roll out web-services versions of existing paper-based processes, businesses of all kinds will find it faster and easier to apply for and receive permits, or to research their compliance requirements for various kinds of regulations.
That we can be thinking about web-services versions of these processes means that RI's Department of IT (DoIT-RI) has accomplished the vast bulk of their initial task: normalize and modernize the mess that was our state's legacy IT environment. RI CIO John Landers came from the retail IT sector, which is a lot about dedicated hardware/software (cash registers and inventory systems) which, of course, is a lot about legacy systems. In fact, Landers' bio calls out his excellence in upgrading legacy systems.
With data from various departments coming under better control, RI.gov can build web apps that let citizens and businesses interact with those departments without going to the physical location. Again, this improves both business climate and quality of life.
It would be charitable of me to say the City of Pawtucket is Internet-challenged. There is, in fact, no actual 'communications' department or even an individual solely tasked with those responsibilities. As recently as 2008, the city's website ran on a 'frames' platform. FRAMES! (1996 called. They want their website back.)
Last year, the city shifted its content into the current incarnation, built on the RI.gov platform. What an improvement! Content is still minimal at best, so it won't win any awards. But it's a solid site that city workers can (and even do) update. I'm sure that many other municipalities could benefit from this approach.
We can only hope that as more and more state and municipal workers become familiar with the RI.gov CMS, their updates will become more frequent across the board. Ultimately, for RI's municipal and state IT infrastructure to be truly world-class, we'll need a user community that is as robust and ubiqitous as the RI.gov platform.