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Discussion: Iowa Government Efficiencies - New Ideas for Old Problems

posted on January 22, 2009 at 5:21 PM


The Iowa Journal looks at ways the Iowa government can save money in this economy.  Guests on this discussion are: Richard Johnson, the Auditor of Iowa for 24 years before his retirement in 2003; and Michael B. Shear, Founder and CEO of POCKETS Distributed Workplace Alternative. Shear has almost 3 decades experience in bringing new technologies and services to market. 

Paul Yeager: At one point in his inaugural speech on Tuesday, President Obama said, "the question is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.  And that's where we will begin today. 

So, what works?  What might work?  And where are the opportunities for innovation and efficiency? 

With us to take on these questions are Michael Shear, CEO and founder of POCKETS Distributed Workplace Alternative and also Richard Johnson, he was the auditor for the state of Iowa for 24 years and Mr. Johnson also served the state in other agencies including the Department of Transportation and the Department of Administration.  Gentlemen, welcome to The Iowa Journal.  Thank you for coming by. 

I want to talk about co-location first, Michael.  Is co-location worth talking about?

Michael Shear: I think today is an excellent time to raise this point.  We have so many challenges and discussion going on today about the use of broadband technologies, what kind of policies we should have in place that the ability to be able to look at aggregate needs is the best way to leverage these kind of resources as infrastructure. 

So, co-location is certainly a method of getting economies to scale and also establishing a framework not just for offering services to the community itself but providing a more secure location for the data and the systems and the people that are actually living in those communities and working for the government or for commercial organizations.

Paul Yeager: Because this is something that could go both across government and the private sector is what you're saying?

Michael Shear: I think that's the greatest need today.  We've seen that the American worker needs every advantage possible to become competitive not just among workers in other states but certainly on a global scale. 

So, applying the same strategies that we have used to build the infrastructure of the 20th century in terms of our roads and highway systems should now be applied to using it to build out our telecommunications and information technologies infrastructure.

Paul Yeager: Mr. Johnson, I'm sure this is not the first time in 24 years at the auditor's office you've heard of such an idea.  How often did that get floated around? 

Richard Johnson: Well, we've had a lot of programs over the years that have been built around innovations.  I know shortly after I left office we had a legislative program that was called the Innovation Fund that set aside a little over a million dollars for innovative projects.  That was primarily directed to cities and counties and schools. 

But the programs of this kind, they have to have the support of the people locally and there has to be some incentive for them.  In our case we had some sharing costs that we had state money available to those communities to initiate the projects and some of them did get off the ground good but, again, the challenge has been after the problems go away sometimes there's no follow up or you start on something and then you don't fund it in the larger scale down the road.

Paul Yeager: So, funding has become a big problem.  It's not because I'm not going to do this.  Talk about some of the specifics. 

I know you had mentioned Grinnell and Poweshiek County, West Des Moines, Corning.  Tell me about some of those projects.

Richard Johnson: Some of the smaller communities where they recognized that the counties and cities could work together more closely and there are a number of examples where in training for the fire and police efforts work together in trying to set up where they could usually not have to do each thing separately. 

But, again, those were innovative programs that were intended to be ongoing and funded locally and once the state leaves often those programs don't have the same priorities in local government that they had when they started.

Paul Yeager: So, that's on a county by city basis.  But, Michael, what about if we would take -- we're not going to have that state office building at least put on the books right now. 

But what if we say Mitchellville or Indianola there's two or three vacant workspaces available that would be a spot that maybe 30 to 40 workers could work from the state government, they wouldn't have to travel and spend time on the road, they wouldn't have to get up early, they'd be able to keep money in the community, be able to pay money for rent in those towns.  Is that something that could work in terms of distributing some of these and not putting up a new office building?

Michael Shear: Yeah, I think those are the essential building blocks.  We have the social and cultural element around work that doesn't seem to necessarily be satisfied by purely working from home.  Certainly the magnitude of problems we have economically, environmentally require us to try to find more permanent ways of adapting ourselves to these technologies. 

When you say 30 or 40 now you're starting to reach into the social elements of work.  We dress up, we put on our work face, we actually leave the living room and go to a building and having colleagues whether it's 20 or 30 or 40 there's still an identity factor that goes with that. 

So, I think that it makes a lot of sense for us to look at where are we hiring people from, who is doing the hiring, what are the commuting paths and is there enough density in these various locations to actually establish centers that have the economies at scale?

Paul Yeager: So, it would take money to study these types of topics so that would be some of the cost.  But would that be a good idea to plug up a hole in a community, if there's a vacant building, would it be a good way for an economic development tool as well?

Michael Shear: A good case in point is Knoxville where the VA will be greatly diminishing their presence at the VA campus down there.  Certainly it's an opportunity to look at reusing that campus facility by identifying what major employers in the area are hiring people from the Knoxville community and working out an arrangement where perhaps those locations can be networked together. 

One of the key elements of looking at broadband infrastructure going forward that I think that we really need to start to understand is that building our own networks, starting to reduce the reliance on the Internet necessarily, provides us a higher level of security so that in the cases of outage or disaster recovery or emergency preparedness we have networks themselves that are secure and not dependent on Internet facilities.

Paul Yeager: So, it goes beyond the Internet.  You wouldn't need lights, a printer, a fax machine or whatever but you would need more than just the Internet to make something like this work?

Michael Shear: In these kind of cases I would strongly recommend that communities look at linking with dedicated facilities, high speed facilities so that if an employer in Des Moines or West Des Moines or Clive is hiring people from, in this case, Knoxville, they don't lose service or connectivity with their workers if there is a failure of the Internet.

Paul Yeager: Richard, what are drawbacks to an idea like that?

Richard Johnson, I think there's some very positive things with it and it brings to mind the development of the ICN.  I was involved with that as a member of the ICN commission when it was first started. 

The challenges that we had when it related to local and state government was there was a reservation about letting it be used for all the opportunities that were there. 

There were limitations that if you can use it for drivers license or motor vehicle things but the rest of the counties weren't able to use it for their other offices and part of that was a political decision because of the pressure on the telecommunications companies.

But I think it's a good example of something that we have the infrastructure there already, you just have to start using it in a way that is most efficient for everybody.

Paul Yeager: Were there issues with human resources about workers might not be working if they're in these remote spots, if they don't have their boss checking over their shoulder?

Richard Johnson: Well, that's always a problem where you don't have the direct supervision but the other issue of that is that when you have people working in a smaller group the opportunities for those people working in that group, they end up having to move if they're going to go up the ladder and, of course, it depends on the type of business that you have or the number of opportunities that are there but I can see that it would be very workable.

Paul Yeager: As an auditor you have lots of inventories.  I'm sure you've had many folders like this with numbers inside.  One number, the state, your old office, DAS provided that since '04 the state has averaged about $12.5 million on rental space across the state or at least in the Des Moines area that is.  Did the office or was there an office that had an inventory of available rental or retail space across the state that could be used for an idea?  Was there ever such a list that was compiled?

Richard Johnson: Well, I think the intent, the recognition was that most of those agencies that had rental space around the Des Moines area were ones that were headquartered in Des Moines and it was more practical for them just to move the people out of some of the state office buildings or expand into other rental space that was readily available locally.

Paul Yeager: And rent, though, is higher in a Des Moines area whether it's on the north, west, east, south side but if you would be in an area that's 20, 30 miles out rent would be down so wouldn't that help offset some of those costs?

Richard Johnson: With technology today, particularly, because whether a state employee is working in Urbandale or in Dallas Center it probably doesn't make a whole lot of difference with the technology that's available today.  So, there could be some real savings there.

Paul Yeager: Could be some savings.  Michael, when you've heard some of these things what have also been some of the drawbacks in plans that you have met that you had researched to counter some of that research?

Michael Shear: Well, I think innovation is always working against the argument that we've never tried this before or we don't know what that would look like or what it would mean.  While we'll continue to -- certainly I'm a strong proponent on finding a balance of our infrastructure needs in terms of transportation, mobility, our proximity or our land use planning -- but somewhere the telecommunications component has kind of dropped down into a lower tier consideration. 

And so I think that the biggest thing is that we need to understand that the same technologies, which as Tom Friedman pointed out, conspired unconsciously to flatten the globe, are readily available to us and at lower and lower cost points to re-engineer our local economies. 

But it does require us to look at not just how we employ ourselves at a distance but also as we're aging how we're going to continue, as AARP says, the education on the K through grey basis, so the distance learning comes into play and certainly as we're older we need the advanced medical services that can be supported by telemedicine in many cases. 

So, by just looking at those three elements, the workforce deployment and the education and medical services, as a requirement to drive those infrastructure needs I think we start to see the kind of economies to scale that might have been lacking in the past.

Paul Yeager: How do you put the ICN to ideas that Michael is mentioning?  How would you make that work?

Richard Johnson: Well, for one thing it would have to be opened up to private industry.  There would have to be an opportunity for private industry to make use of those facilities. 

And there again you get into the competitive nature, of course, it can make private industry more competitive in some respects. 

The ICN, with the change of technology actually has reduced its effectiveness because now instead of having the classroom in a specific site because that's where the ICN site is you can have the classroom in every home or every room in the school and so it has made it with wireless technology now that there's a lot of expansion that's possible.

Paul Yeager: Kay and I talked about the state possibly selling off the lottery.  What about selling off the ICN?  Would this be an opportunity for a lease to a private group to get it in that direction?

Richard Johnson: Well, there's been a lot of discussion about it, it's been proposed before.  I think the difficulty there is most of the private companies have lateral lines that would make it duplication for them to be interested in buying it.  And it was very much a discussion earlier in the program.

Paul Yeager: In the final couple of minutes here put yourself in a leadership position in Cedar Rapids or Linn County or the schools right now.  What would you suggest or consult would be the best movement for moving forward for a co-location?

Michael Shear: Again, I think the least expensive step is the first one and that is the one on the analysis side.  And that is to bring together the major stakeholders be they commercial ...

Paul Yeager: And they are moving that forward and they are going that direction so I guess I should ask a more specific question.  What would you do?

Michael Shear: What would I do?  I'd also broaden it to include, as I say, the medical community, I think the hospitals and the clinics need to be involved as well as the higher education be it community college or the university system. 

There is a great opportunity -- the Congress heard testimony several years ago from the software productivity consortium that suggested that one of the things we need in this country is an institute of distributive work. 

I see the university system in Iowa as being an ideal place to say we think we'd like to bring those funds here because we can apply those resources in a way and develop processes that can be transferrable to other parts of the country.

Paul Yeager: In the final 45 seconds, Richard, you talked a little bit about incentives.  What would be another way to move some of these projects and discussion points forward with incentives?

Richard Johnson: If you were looking at government obviously the incentives for local government is to have the state come in with some dollars.  If it comes with business there can be tax incentives and other types of things that would promote that and I think the state has had a pretty strong economic development program to help industry and this could be another one of those things attached to their programs.

Paul Yeager: Very good, gentlemen I thank you for the discussion.  Richard Johnson, former auditor for the state of Iowa and Michael Shear, the founder and CEO of POCKETS Distributed Workplace Alternative.  

Tags: budgets economy finance Iowa jobs politics

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