Would a Tech Upgrade Make New Jersey Government More User-Friendly?

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | February 15, 2018 | Politics
Advisers tell governor that state’s technology needs major overhaul and Christie’s IT initiative should be urgently reviewed

An app that would let New Jerseyans access state government services easily, a student loan forgiveness program for tech-related careers, and high-speed internet access throughout the state are just part of the future that a gubernatorial transition committee envisions for New Jersey.

The Government Technology and Innovations Transition Advisory Committee report to Gov. Phil Murphy makes 16 recommendations ranging from improving public access to the internet and government services to enhancing New Jersey’s tech reputation. Several comport with promises the governor made on the campaign trail — Murphy called it “reclaiming the innovation economy.” He has already begun to implement one recommendation, to maintain net neutrality in the state. But some of the suggestions may be expensive, particularly given Murphy’s already ambitious and costly agenda.

For instance, the report’s very first recommendation is to upgrade the state’s information technology within six months, saying this “should be a top priority.” The state Office of Information Technology currently provides all IT services for the executive branch, has a budget of $158 million, and employs 629 people, according to its website.

“New Jersey’s government infrastructure is severely outdated, and the state struggles to coordinate services with town and county governments,” the report states. “Although the State recently attempted to switch some applications to public cloud technology, many of its applications still use mainframe storage and processing. Meanwhile, many other states — including Utah, Illinois, and Ohio — have adopted a cloud-first strategy … This administration should immediately assess its biggest choke points and vulnerabilities, and determine its strategy to modernize state hardware systems.”

Evaluate Christie plan

Before he left office, Gov. Chris Christie had signed an executive order aimed at centralizing government information technology, decentralizing software, and modernizing older systems. The report urges Murphy to act quickly, within his first 100 days, to evaluate how well the centralization plan is working and whether to continue it.

While improving state government technology is likely to be expensive, it’s overdue. New Jersey got a C+ in the most recent Digital States Survey, by the Center for Digital Government, in 2016. That was lower than the 2014 grade of B-. It’s also a lower grade than that received by all but four states – Alaska, Rhode Island, Wyoming, and Kansas.
The report suggests that New Jersey look to Utah, which got an A in that survey, to improve electronic government services for residents. Such improvement should be a top priority, as it is essential to “improving accountability and efficiency,” the report states.

New Jersey should create an “E-Government Strategic Plan” and hire a director to make the state’s online services “world-class.” As part of the changes, state agencies should allow people to conduct online transactions they can now only do in person or by mail — renewing a driver’s license, for instance. The state should also create a user-friendly mobile app enabling the public to both get information from various state agencies and report issues of concern.

Smooth, accessible, secure

“With the State lagging in national assessments of e-government, the Governor should prioritize the enhancement of the State’s offerings and frame our residents as customers in the context of their engagement with state agencies,” the report states. “Interactions between residents, businesses, and the government should be smooth, accessible, and secure. The State should use an ‘outside-in’ approach to service delivery by assuming the perspective of the resident, rather than that of the agency, when designing delivery mediums.”

The report stresses that savings from e-government can ultimately exceed the initial costs, saying a study found Utah’s expansion of electronic services saved that state $46 million over five years, with each online transaction costing $13.20 less on average than it cost to conduct the same business in person or via mail. One way to pay for e-government, the report suggests, would be to charge “modest user fees for certain transactions.”

Other ways to help make state government more user-friendly would be to integrate the more than 100 toll-free numbers that the state operates, many during business hours only, into the NJ 211 service, a public-private partnership that provides New Jerseyans with access to a variety of services around the clock. This has the potential of both saving money and improving service to the public, something the new administration should investigate, according to the report.

The report also recommends the state do more to make data available, including a review of the 2016 New Jersey Open Data Initiative to make sure it is making data available and accessible. Specifically, it urges Murphy to instruct the new state treasurer to publish financial data in a format that is “more accessible” to residents.

More transparent

“As the incoming administration has prioritized transparency, improved access to information would enable residents and organizations to monitor government operations and, in turn, hold departments and agencies accountable,” the report states. “By publishing data in a more user-friendly format, a state can support outside responses of impactful decisions. The New Jersey Open Data Initiative was enacted in 2016 to refine the state’s data capabilities. The incoming administration should determine if and how it wishes to proceed with the current strategy, leaving open the possibility of expanding the scope to include information on the performance of education and workforce development programs.”

High-speed internet access for all is another ambitious recommendation from the report, which states that about 21 percent of residents lacked broadband access last year. It suggests the state follow the leads of Massachusetts and New York to build a fiber-optic cable network and provide grants to internet service providers that deliver broadband access to underserved areas.

“Access to high-speed internet is now a prerequisite for participation in our increasingly connected economy,” the report states. “New Jersey has substantial gaps in broadband access … Sussex and Warren counties, and many parts of South Jersey, have the most residents without broadband access. The State’s lower-income residents in our cities are also disproportionately unconnected. As the nation’s most densely populated state, New Jersey should provide all its residents with broadband access.”

High-speed internet for all

The report says that all New Jerseyans should be able to get internet service that does not discriminate against certain sites; and it urges the state to ensure that the Federal Communications Commission’s December decision to end net neutrality does not affect people surfing the web here. This is something on which Murphy has already acted, signing an executive order requiring that all ISPs doing business in the state follow the principles of net neutrality, meaning all web traffic is treated equally. (The state also joined a multi-state lawsuit challenging the FCC’s repeal.)

The wide-ranging report makes recommendations beyond the public availability of data and delves into areas designed to bolster the business of technology in the state, or, as Murphy said often during his campaign, “jump starting the innovation economy.”

Current initiatives “are complex and many investors do not partake in them due to the extensive paperwork and low incentives,” the report contends.

It suggests three ways to bring in more investments. One would be to create an incentive program targeted at high-tech companies that start in or move to New Jersey so that founders and employees would pay no state taxes on capital gains from a public offering or acquisition. Another would be to raise the Angel Investor Tax Credit from 10 percent to 25 percent for those investing in emerging technology businesses with at least three-quarters of employees in New Jersey. The third would give start-ups rebates on their payroll tax payments based on their research and development spending.

Other suggestions include:

  • Strengthen collaboration between colleges and universities and businesses by helping to match entrepreneurs with research institutions and helping the schools negotiate license deals, identify new inventions, and get patents.
  • Build tech incubators where innovators can start their businesses in vacant government-owned office space, with every county having at least one such incubator by mid-2019.
  • Establish a student-loan forgiveness program for students in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
  • Colleges supportive but need more aid

    The state’s colleges support the goals of the transition report and are looking forward to continuing to work toward them, but the schools are going to need additional support to meet these challenges, said Pam Hersh, a spokeswoman for the NJ Association of State Colleges and Universities.

    “Many of our schools used the Building Our Future higher education bond money to build much needed state of the art STEM facilities, but the 2012 bond program was the first one for higher education in 25 years,” she said. “And successful STEM programs require operating support as well — and, the operating support to public institutions has decreased significantly over the past 25 years … To continue to offer cutting-edge STEM initiatives, public higher education institutions need consistent operational and capital funding support — and that requires a rational and comprehensive approach to appropriations.”