Paul Prissel's small idea may prove to be Gov. Mark R. Warner's big legacy.
A relative newcomer to Virginia state government, Prissel started asking a while back why he and other bureaucrats continued to handle 1,200 workplace grievances every year with the same old-fashioned paper forms that employees and managers had been using since, well, forever.
Why not, Prissel asked, ditch the paper-based system, which slowed the typical grievance response to one year, to a computerized system that would speed complaints up the chain of command and, better yet, enable responding agencies to talk with each other.
About 30 of Prissel's colleagues formed a "cross-agency" team to make the idea a reality in February. And now (with the exception of the Department of Education) state government has replaced reams of documents with an easy-to-understand electronic form that asks complainants 12 questions about their case. The system is secure from prying eyes, yet those who need to know a case history can view an entire file by using the employee's Social Security number.
The savings? An estimated $100,000 a year and perhaps three times that amount, depending on whether some full-time jobs have been rendered obsolete by Prissel's proposal.
"When a fresh set of eyes looks at a problem, you can sometimes solve it instead of just saying, 'Well, that's the way we've always done things,' " said Prissel, who joined state government about a year ago after a short volunteer stint on Warner's 2001 gubernatorial campaign. He is deputy director of the Employment Dispute Resolution Department.
Warner campaigned as a 21st-century kind of politician who was at ease in the Internet world, where he had made a considerable fortune as a cell telephone entrepreneur and provider of seed money for start-up technology companies.
Warner's first year in office was dominated by issues both political (how a Democrat governs an essentially Republican state) and budgetary (how to close a $6 billion shortfall). Those headline-grabbing issues were sexy, but they were not always the kinds of things that got Warner's motor racing.
But technology, particularly as it relates to the larger enterprise of government and Warner's determination to make cost-saving reforms, now that's something the former techie can sink his teeth into. Prissel's idea to save money in dispute resolution may seem like a small thing -- it will never shave dollars off Virginians' income tax bills -- but it's the kind of efficiency that, in the context of Virginia government, is revolutionary, Warner said.
"I feel a need to build a case [for more efficiency] for a couple of reasons: to reward the behavior and to hopefully start to change the culture," Warner said in an interview Monday. "Are we really simply going to muddle through a $6 billion shortfall or really examine the way we do business?"
Warner argues that the little ideas, coupled with the sweeping consolidations in information technology (IT) that start taking effect next month, add up to tens of millions of dollars in savings. It's an argument that's getting attention not only in Virginia but in other cash-hungry states looking to the Old Dominion for advice on IT savings.
"Now is the right time to move forward," Warner said last week at a technology conference in Atlanta, which was sponsored by Governing magazine and attended by 225 state and municipal officials from across the country. The bad news, Warner said, was that Virginia taxpayers recently lost $91 million in failed computer projects and cost overruns; the good news, he added, was that things were improving.
Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), who is one of the General Assembly's acknowledged masters on technology issues, said Warner's remarks and Virginia's aggressive approach on technology reforms earned high marks at the Atlanta conference.
"Our IT organization reminds you of Italy at the turn of the century -- 260 principalities, each run as a separate entity," May said.
May credits Warner with providing strong leadership in steering the state toward a more "systematic and professional" approach in technology, with cost savings almost a secondary consideration to improving service to customers, the taxpayers.
"The cost savings are the public part and will be visible, but it's quality of service and continuity of service that will be the bigger gainer," May said.
Working smart in technology is a rare bipartisan goal for a Democratic governor and his sometimes adversaries in the Republican-led assembly, with both sides knowing full well that all the grunt work will be performed well outside the limelight.
Warner said reforming that portion of the government enterprise is its own reward.
"While it's getting better, there's still low-hanging fruit to be found, in terms of savings and benefits," he said.
Last week's column on the success that Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) was having in wooing Warner campaign contributors prompted Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Kilgore's 2005 rival, to point out that he was leading among those donors.
Kaine said the old fundraising network called Virginians for Warner -- a group of moderates that gave about $1 million to the governor in 2001 -- "has been overwhelmingly supportive of me, in fundraising."
Data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks political money, shows that about 50 of the old Warner donors have given Kaine about $90,000.
Kilgore has still managed to peel away a few others, collecting about $31,000 from 20 donors, according to the group's data.