Lost in Cyberspace

The battle over the Office of Technology has ended. The bureaucrats won.

It was to have been the day when Minnesota finally unveiled its strategy for becoming a hub for the nation's booming high-tech industry. Members of the state Senate's Ad Hoc Committee on Information Technology were gathered at the Capitol to hear JoAnn Hanson, the new director of the state's Office of Technology, present the 2-year-old agency's long-awaited master plan--a legally required road map, three months overdue, for how the office would guide state info-tech policy. It didn't happen. Before writing such a plan, Hanson told the senators, her office must define its "stakeholders" and collect their input. "It's necessary to decide where we are now so we can decide where we need to be strategically," she said. "A master plan is a fairly momentous undertaking. It's something I think is going to take some time."

The senators were baffled. The office had already spent $8 million and yet what Hanson was proposing sounded as heady as an environmental-impact study for swampland development.

"I think this is unacceptable," said Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis. "It seems to me that we have a plan to do a plan. Why does that take two years? This is crazy. What have we done in two years?"

David Kern

Pogemiller's frustration is understandable. There's more riding on the master plan than a bureaucracy's proposal for running itself, more even than its plan for spending its annual $4 million budget. What's at stake, lawmakers and local high-tech business owners agree, is Minnesota's chance to reclaim the high-tech real estate it lost when mainframe-computer giants like Control Data and Univac left.

For the state to own a share of the world's burgeoning e-commerce industry could reinvent Minnesota as an international trade hub, at least according to the sunniest scenarios. That could mean high-paying jobs, maybe lots of them. It could resuscitate the state's flagging rural economy. It could make Minnesota a primary source of well-educated computer programmers and engineers, allowing Bill Gates and Co. to quit looking overseas for talent.

To be the conduit for that change is the one of the primary tasks given to the Office of Technology by its legacy-minded creator, Gov. Arne Carlson, when he launched it in 1996. The office, he wrote in a letter featured on OT's Web site, would be Minnesota's "policy navigator to ensure that our state will thrive in the age of technology and prosper in the global economy of the 21st century." Instead OT's vision, various stories put it, has been replaced with a bureaucracy; the missionaries have been supplanted by regulators.

If you believe people who were once on the inside, OT's early days were a kind of cyberspace Camelot. Less than a year ago, their story goes, OT was a marvel, led by two dozen of Minnesota's most technologically visionary minds. These were young, smart, idealistic "Silicon Prairie" people, eager to answer the governor's challenge to position Minnesota as a world leader for the digital age.

"We treated it as an adventure," says Joanne Johnson, who went back to her job as an aide to Eighth District U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson after a brief stop as head of the OT's Internet Center. "If you love this stuff, you really, really love this stuff."

With Carlson's instigation, and under the direction of his former state finance director John Gunyou, OT staffers attacked their jobs with missionary zeal. During last year's legislative session, for example, tech-savvy staffers were a force to be reckoned with. They educated computer-illiterate legislators on the fly and helped craft and draft legislation to fund $256 million in state information-technology investment. At the same time, OT workers fanned out across the state, arranging an array of private-public info-tech partnerships.

They helped develop Web sites for everyone from the state lottery to the Department of Revenue and made the state's North Star site the sixth-most visited of its kind in the country. They pursued ambitious plans to wire schools and provide them with computers and to make it possible to apply for a driver's license on-line.

With its high aspirations and intense drive, the office appeared to have the makings of a high-tech flagship for the state.

Ask around today, and the situation couldn't appear more different.

"I've hardly seen them around on anything this year," says Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, one of the primary movers behind state information-technology policy. "I was very upset by their change in direction."

In the span of four months beginning in November, three of the office's leaders either defected or got fired. At least two key lower-level staffers left, one reportedly in disgust. New initiatives and funding proposals slowed to a crawl.

While some of the best tech-heads in the state continue to work for OT, current and former insiders say the buzz is gone, sapped by a mix of inter-agency squabbling, institutional inertia, and political pressure.

The Office of Technology, Kahn says, was a long time coming. When Carlson announced its launch, she said, she was "very surprised we got to do it." Bureaucrats, she says, are a territorial breed, and the act of creating a new agency to oversee technology would necessarily mean undermining similar authority in other existing offices.

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