'Run fast and don't break any laws': Cabinet secretary rushing to upgrade state government
If it seems like David Ostrowe moves between meetings like he’s running out of time, it’s because he is.
As Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of digital transformation and administration, Ostrowe committed only two years to the unpaid appointment and still works full time running his restaurant ownership group.
Much of his job, put simply, is to improve how Oklahomans interact with their government. He’s pushing agencies to improve or establish digital platforms to access government services, a goal that could bring Oklahoma’s bureaucracy in line with modern technological advancements.
His style doesn’t always mix with the inertia of a bulky state government designed to move slowly.
“The last thing I need is a commission. That's a two-year delay,” said Ostrowe, now four months into his appointment. “I'm not going to be here in two years. Let's run fast and don't break any laws."
He keeps a list of projects; some are easy wins, others require more work.
"For some of these unique, niche deals, if it's legal, give it to me on a napkin,” said Ostrowe. “I don't need a year's worth of work for us to make a decision.”
One of his first achievements as a cabinet member was securing a contract to beta-test digital driver’s licenses. Over the next six weeks, 1,000 people will be able to create an ID card that is accessible on their mobile devices.
He and John Budd, acting director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, have slashed the amount of time it takes for an agency to receive a new computer. While it may not seem like a critical issue, it once took weeks for a state agency to order and receive one through OMES. Allowing agencies to buy their own is expected to help with hiring and training new employees.
Ostrowe and his team have a big list of goals: Credit card payments at state parks, electronic notary service, mobile time clock for mobile state employees, a better website for the public to see where the government spends its money.
Someday soon, Oklahomans could also keep digital car titles instead of the paper version. State officials met last month with an Ohio entrepreneur who wants to put titles in a blockchain, an encrypted yet publicly accessible kind of database most commonly used to keep track of currency like Bitcoin. Titles could only be accessed by people who have the right key.
It was only an exploratory meeting, but it explains how far afield Ostrowe is willing to look for ideas.
For a project to be on his radar, Ostrowe has standards. Whatever solution that comes out must be forward-facing, scalable, it must pay for itself and has to be intuitive. Beyond that, the cabinet secretary re-purposed a phrase often used by his boss, the governor.
“If it doesn't make us a top-10 state, it doesn't get my attention," he said.
Turning 'no' to 'yes'
Ostrowe works closely with staff at OMES. Many of the proposed digital improvements will rely on the agency, including its information technology department.
“The excitement is we've got a guy here that's dedicated to championing these projects for us,” said Chief Information Officer Bo Reese. “The good news is we've done a lot of the heavy lifting already to get things centralized, standardized. We're ripe with opportunity to go start identifying where we can leverage what we've done, and start the digital transformation in the state.”
It hasn’t been easy, and an unpredictable Legislature can turn quick wins into political stagnation as Ostrowe asks more and more from lawmakers over the next 20 months.
“I've been asking 'why' a lot. Sometimes I'll run into a wall because that's what the law says,” he explained.
Some projects only need the governor’s signature or an agency chief’s approval. Others will need help from lawmakers and with that, the political capital to convince them it’s a good idea.
“What surprises me is the level of talent, high level of talent that's been beaten down over the years and been told 'no, no, no, no, no, you cannot, you shall not,'” said Ostrowe. “We're telling the opposite.”