Orange County's Jean Bennett: Governing with the Powers of People and Technology

Article excerpt

Orange County, Florida, Administrator Jean C. Bennett has spent much of her 16-year public sector career managing the guts of government: overseeing budgets and internal support systems, building government from the inside out.

Lately, however, she has pushed Orange County officials and departments to rethink government from the outside in.

Why? Says Bennett, the recipient of a 1995 Technology Leadership Award from Public Technology, Inc. (PTI), "Counties are constitutional anachronisms, with layers and layers of bureaucracies, all in the good name of checks and balances. And inherent in the system of checks and balances is duplication of effort."

Recasting government processes from a taxpayer perspective, she suggests, is the key to eliminating such duplication. And Orange County's recent efforts to integrate technology and information resources for better communication among elected officials, across departments, and between government and citizens - efforts, colleagues say, that Bennett's leadership has inspired - attempt to do just that.

Thinking like the Taxpayer

In 1993, at Bennett's direction, county officials formed teams to analyze the flow of information in four major spheres of government-citizen interaction: community services, justice, infrastructure, and administration. "What we've done by developing all these teams around taxpayer services is to build process reengineering around the political structures [already] in place," says Bennett.

Driving those reengineered processes, those new and better ways of serving citizens, is technology, or, more precisely, technology marshaled for the public good. According to Bennett, the Orange County area is one of the fastest-growing in the state of Florida, and revenue has not kept pace with population growth. "If we do not work smarter," she notes, "we won't keep up with the demands, so we always look for better ways to deliver service, and those ways almost always involve some use of technology."

But Bennett is as wary of technology's pitfalls as she is enthusiastic about its promises. "The rising technological literacy rate among our employee base and the reduction in price of a lot of technological tools allows us more creativity and flexibility than we've ever had in the past, but it also requires some structure," she points out. "In any process reengineering effort, we have to be sure that the process makes sense before we apply technology to it."

As clusters of government agencies with similar functions and goals strive to shape coherent data exchange processes, this, says Bennett, is the agencies' central question: "How do we use technology to deliver or support service A, B, or C? Rather than look at it the traditional way and say, 'You have Mac, and I have DEC, and let's see how we can integrate hardware systems,' we're saying instead, 'Let's look at services from a taxpayer point of view and ask [if] the taxpayer really cares what your system is, or is it more important to . . . deliver the service better by hooking up the computers - or by reengineering the process before doing anything with the computers?'"

Using Technology to Connect and Protect

According to Bennett, Orange County's public already is profiting from this hard look at service delivery. "Citizens have been seeing service improvements in some areas, and [these improvements] may be the results of our organizational imperative to improve customer service and to . . . engage citizens in the process of governance," she says.

The latter, she notes, is a special challenge to her county and to others in which size and diversity easily can threaten a sense of community. Orange County has bucked a national trend of voter alienation by tapping into the connective powers of people and technology to the fullest. Noteworthy among its outreach efforts is a nationally publicized Well-Connected Community initiative that has challenged citizens to develop and articulate a community-centered vision for the county's emerging information infrastructure (see Tom Babington's article in this issue, page 8). …