Utah is a place people go to get away from technology. Whether it’s a ski vacation in Park City, a hiking trip in Salt Lake City, a mountain biking expedition in Moab, or a golf outing in St. George, the landscape invites people to convene with nature. Increasingly, however, it’s not just the natural world that thrives in Utah; it’s also the connected world. Even as tourists visit Utah to turn their electronic devices off, more and more people who live there are deliberately keeping theirs turned on.
In fact, Utah is first in the nation for computer ownership and fifth in the nation for high-speed Internet use, according to the US Census Bureau, which reported in 2014 that 94.9 percent of Utahns live in a household with a computer, and 83.8 percent in a house with high-speed Internet access.
“It’s a cultural thing,” says Mark VanOrden, the State of Utah’s CIO and executive director of the Utah Department of Technology Services (DTS). “Education is very important to most Utahns. Because of that strong desire to learn, technology has really caught on and snowballed here. Using the Internet is a natural by-product of that.”
Utah’s appetite for technology means the Beehive State isn’t just a haven for adventurers. It’s also a haven for IT professionals, who have a unique opportunity to leverage the state’s connectivity.
Relationships for Success
CIO Mark VanOrden says Utah owes its IT success not to technology, but to relationships.
“It’s imperative for me as a CIO to develop great relationships with my counterparts at Utah’s twenty-two cabinet-level agencies,” he asserts. “They need to trust me, and I need to trust them—likewise with the legislature and with the communities we serve. Because in government we can’t just do something because we think it’s a good idea; we need the support—and the votes—to accomplish the initiatives that make sense to us.”
Among the most important relationships to VanOrden’s department, the Utah Department of Technology Services, are the relationships it has with its vendors, to which it gives report cards on a quarterly basis with grades in areas such as cost, support, and quality.
One such vendor is Google. “We’ve been using Google Apps for Government since November 2012 primarily for email and calendaring tasks; if [a colleague] enters something on her computer in a meeting, it shows up right away on my iPad,” VanOrden says. “It’s really efficient, and it’s allowed us to increase collaboration across our twenty-two agencies. Plus, it’s designed for government, so it’s secure, which is really important.”
Computer reseller VLCM, which supplies the state’s computers and peripherals, is another important vendor. “Good vendors are critical because they help us achieve our goals,” VanOrden says. “VLCM is one of those vendors because they don’t try to sell us things we don’t need; they understand our business objectives, and they help us meet them.”
“When you take into consideration the fact that Utah’s average resident is very computer literate, that we’re number one in the western United States for bandwidth availability, and that most homes in the state are connected to the Internet, that puts us in a great position to do things with technology,” says VanOrden, who was appointed CIO in 2012. “We have a very unique citizenry and environment here in Utah, and we’ve definitely taken advantage of that.”
Although Utah is home to companies like Adobe, Oracle, and Novell, by “we” VanOrden doesn’t just mean the technology industry. He also means state government, which during his tenure has established itself as one of Utah’s greatest IT innovators—especially in the areas of open and digital government, which are major priorities for DTS and the twenty-two state agencies it supports.
“Our vision statement is quite simple: We want to enable our partner agencies to securely leverage technology to better serve the residents of Utah,” explains VanOrden, who says technology can help governments activate new levels of democracy. “Of course we serve state agencies as their IT partner, but ultimately we serve the residents of the State of Utah.”
Two projects that illustrate DTS’s vision perfectly are Utah’s state government portal, Utah.gov, and Utah Open Data Catalog.
Utah.gov: Streamlining Civic Engagement
Utah’s state government portal, Utah.gov, isn’t your typical “.gov” website. Redesigned in May 2015 with mobile devices in mind, it embodies the concept of “digital government” by facilitating dynamic electronic exchanges between citizens and government. One section, for instance—titled “Citizen Engagement”—highlights ways in which citizens can actively participate in civics. It features a “Public Comment” section where Utahns can comment on pending legislation and initiatives, a bill-tracking service to track the progress of bills in the state legislature, a social media clearinghouse to connect with state content on social networks, and a “Collaborate” section where Utahns can share user-generated apps, maps, photos, videos, widgets, or blogs of interest to their fellow citizens.
“We are always looking for new ways to help the citizens of Utah get more from state government,” VanOrden says. “Utah.gov has a reputation for delivering superior online solutions that enhance citizens’ interactions with state agencies.”
The highlight of Utah.gov is its “online services” section. “Virtually all of our major services are now available online,” says VanOrden, who attributes the state’s success to a “snowball” strategy. “Early on in this effort we established goals with each of our state agencies, asking them to put three new services online in the coming year. Times twenty-two agencies, that’s sixty-six services in one year. After that, agencies started to see the value of putting services online, and it just snowballed from there.”
Indeed, Utah currently provides more than 1,100 different services via the web, according to VanOrden, who cites a 2012 study by the University of Utah, which determined that the state saves thirteen dollars per transaction when that transaction is performed online instead of in person. “In 2013 we did 34 million transactions, so you do the math,” he says. “That’s close to half a billion dollars that we save the state every year.”
By cutting costs for government agencies, online services save taxpayers money. They also save taxpayers time. “This is good for state agencies because it saves them money, but it’s also very good for residents of the State of Utah because they can do business with the government from the comfort of their home or office instead of having to find a government office, determine its hours, and go there on their lunch break.”
It’s the government equivalent of e-commerce. “We want to make transacting government business as easy as possible—like Amazon.com,” says VanOrden, whose next goal is making sure citizens use the many digital services that Utah has available. “My goal is that 90 percent of all transactions in state government will be done via the web within the next three to four years. That will mean a focus on providing not more services online, but better services, so that the public comes back again and again to use them.”
Some online services have already exceeded VanOrden’s goals. Take, for instance, weekly unemployment insurance claims, 99.5 percent of which are submitted online; state income tax filings, 90 percent of which are submitted online; motor vehicle registrations, 57 percent of which are submitted online; and applications for SNAP benefits and Medicaid, 76 percent of which are submitted online.
“Every other year, the Center for Digital Government gives every state a letter grade for digital government. Utah is the only state that’s gotten an ‘A’ grade every year that they’ve done it,” VanOrden says. Only three states—Utah, Missouri, and Michigan—received an “A” in the Center’s most recent survey. “A big reason for that ‘A’ grade is everything we’ve done to provide web services for the residents of our state.”
Utah Open Data Catalog: Activating Democracy
The culmination of DTS’s work in digital government is its open government portal, the Utah Open Data Catalog (OpenData.Utah.gov), which leverages technology to realize Abraham Lincoln’s vision of government that’s “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
“I believe—and we as a department believe—that all government at all levels should be transparent,” VanOrden says. “That means that citizens should have access to all government data.”
Funded by the state legislature in 2014, the Utah Open Data Catalog launched in January 2015 with 800 data sets. By mid-2015, it already had nearly doubled that to 1,500.
“Our goal is to have all open public data available on the website by the end of 2016,” VanOrden says. “If I want to find a list of all the corporations that have incorporated in Utah in the past year in the construction industry, I can find that data, filter it, sort it, and download it in one of seven or eight different formats.”
Powered by Socrata, an open data tool designed for government users, the open data portal even provides maps. Citizens can plot all licensed plumbers in the state, for instance, or public high schools with above-average test scores.
Ultimately, VanOrden says, the goal isn’t just providing data, but utilizing it to improve life for Utahns. “What we want the public to do is reuse this data to make their own mobile apps,” he says. “The state doesn’t have the resources to write every mobile application that the public wants, so we invite our citizens to do it for us.” In the summer of 2015, DTS sponsored its own hackathon to encourage citizens to write apps using open government data in areas as diverse as business, education, traffic, and health care.
The onus to deploy data isn’t on citizens alone, however. Government must do its part, too. “I’m a big advocate of analyzing data from each of our twenty-two agencies and using it to solve problems like poverty. For example, we know that someone who’s raised in poverty has a much, much greater chance of staying in poverty—but why, and what can we do to change that?” VanOrden continues. “One of my goals is to hire a full-time data scientist who can help us answer questions like that in order to create data-driven outcomes and decisions that improve the quality of life in the State of Utah.”
Because of challenges ranging from politics to funding to security, driving change in government is never easy. Still, it’s essential.
“The key to managing technology in government is being open to change,” VanOrden concludes. “You need to embrace change because it’s going to happen with or without you.”