With stylish office furniture, life-size video monitors and the latest hand-held gadgets, North Carolina government's new "Innovation Center" is about making smart decisions without wasting taxpayer dollars.
The center is set to open Thursday, almost six months after Gov. Pat McCrory announced the concept to help modernize the state's information technology inventory.
State government agencies have been notorious in the past for buying computer programs that don't work well with other agency networks and with costs over budget. While more centralized control and improvements have been made in recent years, McCrory has made information technology modernization a priority since taking office.
"Making sure stuff works before we buy it is one of the governor's key messages," state Chief Information Officer Chris Estes said Wednesday while touring the center. "We've had many instances where we've bought stuff and it hasn't fulfilled its mission."
The hub is located inside the Department of Environment and Natural Resources headquarters in downtown Raleigh. It will serve as a place where agency chief information officers and other government workers try out computers, programs, video conferencing and emerging technologies.
Estes said agencies will require future potential vendors to come to the center to prove their products meet intended purposes.
Government agency heads can also try out demo models of state-approved technology or potential vendors so they can calculate how well it works before releasing a bid request. Three touch-screen monitors attached to one wall will allow people to try out web-based methods for people to interact with government, such as through the Division of Motor Vehicles.
"It's not just about testing the technology that we buy, but how people interact with the technology so that we can train better, so that we can manage, change better," Estes said.
One room allows IT managers to try out an array of smartphones, tablets and other small devices. Nearby, there's a video "telepresence" system where people at a conference table can speak to a similar panel on video thousands of miles away. Estes said the system, a demonstration model, has been used by the state Commerce Department. It's a method for officials to meet with out-of-state companies interested in expanding in North Carolina, saving time and money.
McCrory said in April he needed the General Assembly to pass a law to allow employees to try out new technology from vendors without it being labeled a "gift" and thus violating state ethics rules. In the meantime, Estes said, state attorneys have determined current demo agreements don't break those rules.
A performance review from State Auditor Beth Wood's office released in April of 84 information technology projects found actual costs were $356 million higher than state agencies originally estimated and took 389 days longer to carry out. The center, combined with better cooperation between state IT agency chiefs, aims to diminish such delays, Estes said.
Legislators on Tuesday grilled leaders of the Department of Health and Human Services about operating problems with a new Medicaid billing system that came online July 1, years overdue and nearly twice the initial price tag.