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Technology 'unification' project digs into hundreds of North Dakota state systems, websites

The state Capitol in Bismarck. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

BISMARCK—Information technology serving North Dakota state agencies totals more than 800 "legacy" IT systems and 160 websites, according to Gov. Doug Burgum.

The former software executive who ran on a platform of innovation in government says users shouldn't have to go to different state websites for separate functions. In the age of Amazon and Apple, the state should have a similar "single sign-on" experience, he said.

"Technology exists, and we're behind and we've got to catch up," Burgum said. "When we're a small state ... we can't be replicating everything over and over again."

For years, there was an "organizationally centric" approach that led to so many systems, resulting in "redundancies," Chief Information Officer Shawn Riley said.

Now 13 months along, the state Information Technology Department's "unification" project is building and phasing in a website platform that so far serves 26 state agencies.

He said IT unification has involved extensive data collection from agencies from an "individualized" perspective. If the project were a house, ITD would be pouring the footings, he added.

"So when you go out there ... on the websites, they're still going to look different, but what's behind them has now been centralized and unified, so that the technology that enables their site is the same technology across that platform," Riley said.

Twenty years ago, information evolved from paper to electronic means, and now the move is from electronic to digital, said Riley, adding that analytics and artificial intelligence are now possible, beyond a "flat" computer format.

"Now we can do integrated data across multiple systems, and we can understand aspects about a citizen that we could never understand before," Riley said.

As an executive branch effort, unification has the separation of powers to keep in mind, he added. Earlier this year, legislators asked him to pause changes at ITD until they were briefed. House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said lawmakers wanted to ensure appropriations weren't being "shifted" among agencies.

Furthermore, the legislative and judicial branches each have specialized technology needs. Carlson said the Legislature's information is time-sensitive, especially during sessions.

The judiciary's 19-year-old juvenile case management system "is in serious need" of a $2.1 million update, according to Sally Holewa, state court administrator, adding that uncertain state revenues have protracted the issue.

The judicial branch has not been involved in ITD's unification effort, Holewa said. The state court manages a variety of case management systems, such as for trial courts, juries and the Supreme Court, as well as the public data portal for court cases and digital audio recordings of hearings.

"Sometimes, it pays to have some software to just be dedicated to a specific function," Holewa said.

North Dakota's judicial branch also shares data with a number of agencies, such as the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Criminal Justice Information Services.

Additionally, the state Supreme Court and Department of Human Services are working to share data about youth and families involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems through a memorandum of understanding forged by the Dual Status Youth Initiative.

Riley said ITD will present "a package of our entire data components" to the Legislature for review by year's end, with updates along the way to committees. Further steps on IT unification would be developed after legislators' review, he added.

Would the project be finished by the end of Burgum's term in 2020? Riley said that's "an interesting question," dependent on funding and progress.

"The hard part is what does 'finished' mean?" he said. "'Finished' is not the same place for everybody, so I would steer away from that word."

So far, unification has resulted in more than $500,000 in "cost avoidance" for the 26 state agencies now on the new platform, according to Riley.

Carlson expressed support for consolidating the state's IT systems, but emphasized the ultimate process.

"In the end, the Legislature funds everything, so our involvement is that we have to analyze and we have to prioritize our funding, and it's our decision in the end as to how those dollars will be spent," he said.

The governor said the consolidation of state technology could result in cost savings while following current trends.

"I think we've got to catch up to consumer expectations," Burgum said.