Almost a year into the term of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, it is clear that his administration is more than just interested in the potential of high technology. These folks are obsessed.
The signs of the administration's love affair with technology abound -- from the governor's frequent appearances in high-tech settings, to the presentations by Internet experts at Cabinet meetings to the pocket-sized computer that chief of staff Major F. Riddick Jr. carries constantly.
The governor's Information Technology Board, once an obscure advisory panel chaired by an out-of-state businessman, is now one of the hottest tickets in Annapolis.
Its monthly meetings, chaired by Mr. Riddick, have become standing-room-only affairs that agency heads and telecommunications executives dare not miss lest they be left out of the loop.
And Maryland government's presence on the Internet has increased dramatically since Mr. Glendening ordered all state agencies to set up a World Wide Web page by Dec. 1 -- a goal attained by all Cabinet-level departments and all but a handful of smaller agencies.
This month the governor's publicity apparatus is being cranked up to call attention to Mr. Glendening's technological "vision," which is emerging as an important theme of his administration.
The governor last week unveiled his administration's first high-profile initiative, an Internet-link between government and citizens known as the Maryland Electronic Capital.
This Tuesday and Wednesday, the state will hold an exhibition at the University of Baltimore, with dozens of companies giving demonstrations of their technologies.
One of the main events: a course taught by Mr. Glendening using the state's "distance learning" network.
It's doubtful whether the governor will have to spend much time preparing a lecture. Asked about his technology policies in a recent interview, he launched into a 10-minute discourse on the topic while barely pausing for breath.
"I believe very strongly that if we are very competitive in terms of technology, that that will translate into jobs," he said. He vowed to make Maryland "the benchmark for the entire country" in the use of technology.
The administration next year expects to present at least two important technology proposals to the General Assembly.
One is a reinvestment fund that will let it funnel savings achieved through technology into new high-tech projects. The other is the establishment of four or five regional centers for training workers and acquainting businesses with new technologies.
All this activity is not just driven by a fascination with computers. The administration is convinced that the only way to deliver services more efficiently in an age of shrinking government is to use technology.
"It's the pothole politics of the 21st century," Mr. Glendening said.
The administration is winning plaudits from business executives and even qualified praise from Republicans for its technology initiatives.
Ken Karpay, a Baltimore telecommunications consultant who has worked closely with the Information Technology Board, said Mr. Glendening deserves credit for setting the agenda for Maryland on technology issues.
"Here's a guy who's saying, ahead of most of the other governors, that he realizes the economic potential, and I would say the economic necessity, of investment in information technology," said Mr. Karpay.
Sen. P. J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Republican who takes an interest in technology issues, said the administration is "on the right path" in its use of information technology.
"We weren't even on the Web till very recently and I certainly applaud them in that effort," said Senator Hogan, who cited the reduction of paperwork and the economic potential of information technology as goals Republicans could support.
Mr. Hogan did express reservations about the Glendening proposals for regional technology centers, saying that, "There's a lot of fluff in there." And he said he opposed the notion of a technology investment fund, saying that any savings should be returned to the state's general fund.
These and other technology-related proposals are being developed with the involvement of Mr. Riddick, whom Mr. Glendening describes as "a technological nut." Day-to-day coordination is handled by Michael Langrehr, the state's information technology director.
Generally regarded as the second most powerful figure in the administration, Mr. Riddick is being given credit for re-energizing an Information Technology Board that was adrift toward the end of the Schaefer administration.
His title is acting chairman, but Mr. Riddick puts an entirely different spin on the word "acting." He runs the meetings at a frenetic pace, mixing sardonic humor with constant exhortations about the need to move quickly.
Jack Thompson, a Schaefer appointee to the board who was retained by Mr. Glendening, said the change is dramatic. "Under the old administration there was a lot of talk," he said. "It was kind of frustrating for me."
Mr. Thompson, executive director of the Lattanze Center for Executive Studies in Information Systems at Loyola College, said Mr. Riddick "has really supercharged the structure."
By putting Mr. Riddick in charge, Mr. Thompson said, the administration has sent a clear signal to agency heads that technology is a priority. "It's not politically correct not to know what's going on," Mr. Thompson said.
A former chief information officer at McCormick & Co. and a Republican, Mr. Thompson said he's convinced the administration has made "a real commitment" to using technology effectively and that a clear strategic direction has been established.
Services to citizens
The heart of the administration's technology initiative is an effort to deliver services to citizens and businesses when they want and where they want.
Mr. Riddick said the plan will unfold in three stages. In the first, which is taking shape now, people will be able to get the information they want through computers in homes, offices or public libraries or at touch-screen kiosks in public places.
For instance, a real estate agent can now get information on license renewal procedures through the Department of Licensing and Regulation Web page on the Electronic Capital.
In the second stage, he said, these computer systems will become interactive. That real estate agent would then be able to file an application from a computer in the office instead of having to make the trip to a state office building.
The final stage would be to use the network to conduct financial transactions and deliver services. Thus, that theoretical real estate agent could pay the renewal fee and receive a legally valid license without leaving the office.
"There's opportunity after opportunity for us to do exactly the same things," Mr. Glendening said.
To do that, the administration will have to jump some formidable hurdles -- technological, financial, organizational and political.
Much of the technology it envisions has yet to be developed. Keeping dozens of agencies focused on providing fresh information in usable form will be a constant challenge.
And while the administration has done a remarkable job of getting private industry to donate resources for its early initiatives, at some point they'll want to be paid out of scarce state funds.
Ultimately it's doubtful whether an administration that managed to get negative publicity when it landed a National Football League team can generate popularity with computers.
"Information systems and technology by itself certainly isn't sexy," Mr. Glendening said.
But the governor said he has a vision of a shopper coming out of a supermarket and remembering that she needs a copy of her birth certificate. So she doubles back to a kiosk in the store and obtains it in a matter of minutes.
"They're not going to think Parris Glendening is a great governor, but they'll think, 'My state government is working,' " he said.